Thursday, September 04, 2008


My first question about Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy is whether it represents grief as obsession or obsessive grief. The persistent attention that Bang pays to her subject—the death of a child, a son— is impressive, but after a while I started to wonder if it wasn’t a little macabre. All that energy that was expended by Bang to recreate the son image by image, memory by memory was undoubtedly a tender and thoughtful effort on her part, but it also felt a little bit like entering Borges’s “The Circular Ruins” with the dreamed image slowly being dreamed until it came alive. Very otherworldly.

I can imagine some readers being put off by the obliqueness of the speaker in Bang’s Elegy. After all, we are very rarely put in touch with a straightforward depiction of what happens. The reader pieces together most of the details of the situation from the glancing blows the speaker deals to its subject in poem after poem.

With this technique of erosion, Bang seems to be commenting on the slow dissipation of grief over time, how if one befriends it and doesn’t fight it, then it becomes a companion to while away the empty hours. This is an interesting notion; however, I can’t say that my brief episodes with grief have worked that way. The loss presses itself very urgently in the moments directly afterwards. Then there seems to be a point of activation where the grief evaporates very quickly (often life’s other pressing matters begin to wear on the lingering grief).

Then again, I might just not be doing grief right. One of my brothers accused me of not grieving enough when my mother died.

I thought mom would probably understand my “callous” behavior.

So, for me, this lingering in grief and biting off a bit more to chew on poem after poem seemed a death by a thousand cuts. It didn’t map on to my experience. But of course, it doesn’t delegitimize Bang’s experience or even her depiction of said experience. To me this experience of another’s grief is the most fascinating part of the book. I find myself gawking at Bang’s odd emotional striptease, discarding layer after layer of memory and image.

The fairly opaque language (Bang’s poems are rarely straightforward depictions of experienced scenes) can be viewed in one of two ways. One perspective might be that Bang doesn’t allow her speaker to co-exist in the same space as its subject, the lost child. It is not experience rendered with any interest in heartfelt anecdote. It finds its subject in more of the details and the detritus. Bang’s speaker is not regaling the good times and the bad times. One might wonder how one is able to hold such stories at a distance, why one, a mother, would be reluctant to depict the relationship with the son in such way. It is suggestive of fracture, strain, disconnection.

However, another perspective onElegy might be that it is actually one of Bang’s most open and accessible texts. In earlier work she seems very wedded to verbal and language play as seen in 2000 from Jacket 12 . . . and probably a holdover from her days as editor of Boston Review. There is still a good bit of sleight of hand in Elegy and at least one reader has confided in me that the verbal play is irritating. But in Elegy the turns always lead to a further definition of the subject of the book. In previous work those turns would always take one to the far ends of the universe. The wilder turn always seemed better.

I found there to be some beautiful moments, despite the rather rambunctious Heather McHugh-inspired machinations of her language. In fact, my favorite piece in the book was one that McHugh chose for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2007:

The Opening

Open the door and look in.
Everything is in place.
The flickering heart
The owlet eyes are locked on.
A serpentine hair hangs over an ear.
A hand comes up to touch it.
A rhythmic hum runs ahead of the wave.
Someone turns her head
And hopes, no, lopes across the lawn.

Open the door and look in.
The black magic cat is clawing the sofa.
The midnight lamp is loosing some light.
Someone is getting undressed.
Her pajamas are pressed
And she’s getting into a bed of flowers.
Ophelia is lying in the bog in the park,
A moment’s orphan in the afterdark.
Sing me a song, Pet, I beg of you.

Open the door and look in.
The Vivian Girls are reading the books
Their countenances were cut from.
It’s like a mirror. The parent and the penguin
Child. Two men with two suitcases.
The hand mirror making its lake
Last as long as it can.
The self looking the depth
Of Wallace Stevens’ wife on the dime.

Open the door and look in.
A murder, some mayhem, the night
News. A cloak on a hook in a closet.
There’s no rug on the floor and the wood
Feels warm. There may have been an arson.
Mistakenly Released Suspect Still Missing
In Dogville or Dogtown or the Down-and-out
Sorry state of things now. Listen,
Brenda Lee is singing, I’m sorry.

Open the door and look in. Look
Down the page to the footnote. To the fine print.
To the FedEx box on the bedside and
The floral print jammies that are jarring
Against the previous-era paper on the wall.
Some ice-cream topper Jimmies
To top off the night. Red Yellow Blue White.
The deer-leg lamp, says Jessica, really does work
And with that, she twirls the shade like a top.

Open the door and look in.
A pin under the bed.
A dust layer on the desk top.
The minutia and the microbe, the fear of failing
To ward off the inevitable, It will be done.
Whatever the It is. The static of darkness,
The dissolve of the moment.
The mouse crawls out of its house,
Remembers where it last ate a grub.

Open the door, Mother, and look in.
The babies in their boxes are sleeping like beetles
In ladybug red, each with a Santa hat.
They’re all at the border of risk,
All about to vanish into the past
Of the unvarnished after.
A longer word for gone. Girl.
Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy.
If we turn out the lights, they will keep.

Open the door and look in.
In her pajamas, she looks thin.
Pale skin, short nails, hail on the rooftop
And window glass. January is ant dark
Every morning and early in the late afternoon.
With a gloom aspect like a seascape
That was smoke damaged above a fire grate.
The wrapped-mummy mood mutes
The emo that spins like a Catherine Wheel.

Open the door and look back.
Over your shoulder. A peach-cheek
Love bird on a cage roost
Is swinging back and forth.
He’s nature, but he also seems nervous.
The traffic din music comes floating in.
He’s nature, but he also seems nervous.
Sing us a song, Pet, and he does. He sings of arson
In Alexandria, of Helen of Tragic of Troy.

Despite urging the reader to play at Peeping Tom, to check in on the room where the one who is lost had stayed and has now been replaced by a woman in floral print jammies, this somewhat transgressive act of voyeurism feels permissible. Bang allows her speaker to comment on Bang’s own(?) condition as the woman in the floral print jammies, the mother whose meditations on the vicissitudes of human personality have her (also) peering in on the child shortly after it is born where it is poised at the border of risk (in so many more ways than one).

The risk that is alluded to throughout the book is the aggressively aberrant behavior (with respect to drug addiction and anti-social behavior) of the son (presumably that of 37-year-old-at-the-time-of-passing Michael Donner Van Hook — to whom the book is dedicated) that is hinted at by Bang.

One is never transported into a full-on account of the details of the son’s demise, and it is curious to me to see how Bang chooses the details around the life, the detritus of a life to stand in for that drama. You can tell she doesn’t write for television. If the same subject matter were touched on by television scriptwriters, we’d have action, action, action, followed by drama, drama, drama. I suppose this is what happens when you put twenty-somethings in charge of the depiction of tragedy.

Thankfully, Bang is much more seasoned and given to repose— a luxury these days, I guess.

Her discipline to the subject of her grief is the most fascinating aspect of the book for me. With the months as our tour guides, Bang takes the reader on a journey through her grief, quietly dipping into the past days and memories of the son, taking up just enough detail to sustain her for the next ritual grieving. I kept asking myself whether this masochism was necessary. Finally, I concluded that for Bang it was. For me, probably not.

However, Bang also labors to make these poetic reflections [part oddly-turned phrase, part peculiarly-enjambed line, part alliteration-and-rhyme casserole) a work of art. This is a difficult task. One can appear to be exploitative. Yet as sensitively-attuned as I am to the gimmick or the crutch that one’s artistic efforts can be pinned to, I didn’t find those notions creeping into my head. Bang’s pain and care of attention were palpable, not an affectation in service of “art.” [Of course, I’m easily fooled by Hollywood films into thinking that what I’m seeing is genuine.] Yet, the sheer scope of the project seems to favor an interpretation of Bang’s efforts as lovingly rendered, not exploitative. The book’s theme at that point appears to be dedication, devotion . . . without doting, a difficult line to straddle, especially for a mother.

In “A Sonata for Four Hands” that initiates us into this grief space, Bang longs for the face in the photograph, then at the end juxtaposes it against the ornamentation on the morgue door. The two are synonymous. That kind of quirky association permeates Elegy and Bang’s work in general. In a sense it is, I hope, one of the things we come to poetry for, for the singular associations that a poet can bring to bear, the equivalences between the plethora of objects in a world of things. Is that beauty too? It just might be, Dorothy. It just might be. Or at least one of its distant cousins.

For those readers who might wish to have a poem’s subject more clearly delineated, Bang will seem a tad bit jittery (to crib from Tony Hoagland), and as a result, I suspect, such a reader will find such “jittery grief” off-putting. Or is it enlivening? Is Bang’s mind alive in her grief? Should we expect a more moribund treatment of the subject, a mind that stays within the parameters of just the subject, without diversion? What kind of grief would that be? What kind of voyeurs would we be to look in on that?

In “Where Once” the dead son is invoked but is immediately placed back in the world. Very often Bang employs this technique to animate the dead. It is the dead “as if”. Such a move on her part signals to me a great sense of personal regret for things turning out the way they have. Bang walks right up to the edge of accepting responsibility for fate, which, if she did, might signal a particularly unproductive space to dwell in. But I find this undercurrent of unnamed self-blame to be acutely present at certain times in the book. One almost wishes to console the speaker except for the speaker’s equally vehement resistance to being a sink for consolation.

That Bang can measure and balance these tensions consistently throughout the book is a testimony to her skill and experience as a poet. For many who have followed Bang’s wilder poems in the past, the tonal and technical shift in Elegy will be a curiosity. However, as one makes one’s way in the book, sees the subject matter at hand, one will understand this shift. In fact, it should deepen one’s respect for Bang as a practitioner. Her more obvious craftedness in this collection is done in deference to the emotional landscape of grief. Rightly, the extraneous and carefree diversion in much of the earlier work would seem out of place, like she is trivializing her pain too much, avoiding it for the sake of her own and her reader’s enjoyment.

There are plenty of other complications of tone and subject matter in Elegy if this more-stripped-down (in terms of the line) version of Bang displeases. As for me, I found it very interesting to see what happened when the generous line and imagination of Bang’s past work got toned down, became compressed by grief.

With still one more parent to go [not to mention two kids (heaven forbid, I should outlive them)] Bang’s Elegy gives me hope I can get it right the next time and adopt a more circumspect tone.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

BEST OF THE BLOGS (What are you? Nuts?)

It was the end of the year when I began this project/search to look for the “best of the blogs” so that I could ably assume the troubled role of tastemaker. Now it is the beginning of the next one, and I am no closer to settling the issue. Certainly the pronouncement about some past effort has no importance insofar as it does not make its mark upon the future. So while I straddle this year and the last, I will tell you what I mean by the “best.”

It is such a laughable feat that I undertake that I can almost hear that reader sobbing for the obviously poor condition my soul is in and my transgressions. I shall repent at tax time. Meanwhile I will persevere to deliver what I find online among the bloggers whose main emphasis seems to be the love of poetry. This means I am looking at blogs that put poems online (either as out-and-out published poems or as part of a review of a book or close reading of a single poem). I tended to veer away from those blogs engaged in literary theory or academic disputes about one thing or the other. Also, I discounted those blogs dedicated to the daily ephemera of the author. Many of these turn out to be the blogger’s private little soundpost to project onto the world or to air one’s grievances.

What I was really interested in was bloggers whose main interest was in delivering poetry in a satisfying manner to those who might stroll through the site.

My ranking really reflects my own desire to revisit the site in the future. It is a metric of my own curiosity if it measures anything.

1) Eileen Tabios’s Galatea Resurrects (1), (2), (3), (4) are all billed as “poetry engagements,” and this is primarily what makes them so delightful. Though the site is really an online publication dedicated to reviewing primarily small press poetry books, the dedication to the work is readily apparent. For anyone who endeavors to find that next gem from a little known press, this is the first place to stop. There is no historical context like in other high profile blogs. Just a lot of love.

2. Simon DeDeo’s Rhubarb is Susan is a compendium of “flash reviews” of poems written by a self-described “man from Chicago.” Though he does not always adhere to flash reviews, he does do the visitor to his site the service of quoting the entire poem he is looking at and commenting on. Much of the focus is towards small presses that feature experimental work (especially if the subject matter relates to science . . . as the man behind the Simon DeDeo persona appears to be a scientist . . . oh-my-god there’s a scientist running loose in the house of poetry!)

3. Kathy Kieth’s Medusa’s Kitchen is always an interesting mix of local Northern California poets’ work and the work of established poets from across the country or throughout the world (recent posts have featured Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen and Goethe. There is no era or geography she doesn’t like, but this is probably not the place to find work that is pretending to leap into some new poetic space. This is a space for good, solid, crafted work that often takes a thoughtful pose on the natural world. This site is often a good spot to check for a grounded poetry fix.

4. Paul Hoover’s blog is a great antidote to Silliman’s blog only because the posts there are more periodic and do not require a slavish acquiescence to daily opinion-making on poetry. While some might find this as not living up to the blue collar poetry ethic, I am always relieved that I do not have to wade through a month’s worth of posts to find something that is inspiring. The paucity of posts makes it easy savor them. Kudos especially to the focus on Nathaniel Mackey and Vietnamese poet Nguyen Trai as well as Hoover’s own Edge and Fold, whose cover and contents I’ve found to be very satisfying given my limited exposure.

5. James Lee Jobe’s blog does it all. Often the focus is on local Northern California poetry, but just as often it is not. A two-week sampling of poetry posts finds poems by Norman Dubie, Bob Kaufman, Forest Hamer, Lawrence Ferlighetti, Bob Hicok, Robert Bly, Federico García Lorca, Robert Desnos, Jane Kenyon, John Ashbery, Jean Follain and others. What is it with the inland empire of Northern California blogs to use the blogspace as an anthology/literary journal? The contemporary and the past poets live together in harmony. Where’s all the theory and the poetics? Where’s all the positioning of poets within a historical context? Nope. Just poems for people who love poems.

6. Sina Queyras’s Lemon Hound (now temporarily and perhaps perpetually defunct) is a Canadian offering that is talky at times, but Queyras has sworn off her blog for the time being because she wants to connect back to the physical world. That’s a reason to check in to see how that project goes into the future. One wishes her a lot of brick and mortar happiness and even a glimpse at the moon from time to time. That seems healthy enough without becoming overbearing. Her tag phrase is “pissing people off since 1969.” I find that admirable. Queyras’s photos are punctuated by snippets of Jena Osman, Laura Sims and a link to Kenneth Patchen. Any blog that offers a little self-reflexiveness is worth taking note of, and there is enough of others’ work to make one hold on to its past even as it has renounced its future.

7. Another from Canada is Jon Paul Fiorentino’s blog Asthmatronic which provides a brief glipmpse at what is new and fresh in Canadian poetry. Fiorentino, like Queyras above, is part of the Coach House Press stable, and his work is satisfyingly edgy in way that many American poets who aspire to the edge are not. The blog is mostly a collection of outtakes from Fiorentino’s reading tour late in the year, but there is enough of the contemporary poetry scene in Montreal and the rest of Canada to make the blog worthy of a stop. There isn’t always poetry in great doses here, but there often is a lot of other cultural droppings: a link to a pop bad devoted to hockey star Dale Hawerchuk and a spooky You Tube video of a Japanese-made English instructional video. And just enough venom and vigor for the previous generation of Canadian writers.

8. Heidi Lynn Staples’s Mildred’s Umbrella is a bit heavy on the links to Staples’s own poems, which is kind of like a look-what-I-got-for-Christmas kind of thing she has going on there, but I’m partial to the Herb Scott piece she has posted as well as a short piece by Medbh McGuckian she has posted. Also, I like the fact that she addresses her readers as “bloggerisimo” as though one who passes through the site must be the biggest blogger of them all.

Well, I couldn’t quite come up with 10 poetry blogs that would fit the criteria I was looking for in particularly satisfying ways, so I resorted to what many others do, I resorted to picking some favorite music titles.

1. By far this year’s most inspiring and beautiful record of the year is Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst and other choral works. I can’t stop listening to it. Eric Whitacre is the 35-year-old choral composer phenom whose works have redefined notions of polyphony for choral music. This is unearthly stuff, but the best thing about Whitacre is that he is the only classical composer with a My Space site (for Eric Whitacre). Not only that but he has 18640 friends. Geez. That’s more than went to my high school! Swing on over to the site and listen to “Sleep.” If that’s not what you expect music to do for you, then I’m sorry for all of that. On top of all this, his librettos are taken from Rumi, Lorca, Cummings, Dickinson, and Paz.

2. OK. So maybe I’m a sucker for anything this guy does and maybe his “Romance of the Violin” made more of an impact, but there isn’t a violinist whose tone “sings” as much as Joshua Bell’s. Therefore, it is an obvious move for Bell to record “The Voice of the Violin,” where he adapts many operatic arias and other choral works for the violin. Just the inclusion of many of these pieces into the repertoire would be enough to be included in the “must-listen” category, but how Bell captures the intensity of his (and my) boyhood idol Jascha Heifetz yet makes the violin stay sweet and not sound stark is beyond me. Of course, there are many reasons why I should be drawn to Viktoria Mullova or up-and-comer Cecilia Ziliacus, but for some reason Bell remains on the top of the heap for me. Perhaps he is the undisputed heavyweight champ.

Friday, October 13, 2006


At the beginning of Bin Ramke’s Airs, Waters, Places, the tone of the speaker suggests he seems to have just emerged from a department meeting fuming and struggling to believe in kindness as a viable structure for human interaction. The voice is wounded and patching holes in its armor. It is dark and poisoned by the ineptitude of the physical world (the airs, waters and places of it) despite the speaker’s seeking solace in it. It is a hard voice to warm up to with its vision of a difficult and thankless world full of foreboding, a world where one dare not be generous to others so that we might not see the self in them (as in “Tiny Wounds: A Theory of Generosity”), a world where the stranger is to be feared in order to escape empathy. This is not a very sanguine world.

Yet every time I wanted to shy away from the darkness that pervades Airs, Waters, Places, I admonished myself for doing so. For it is my belief that one of the greatest public services literature does is that it allows a reader to linger in the presence of others whose tempers and predilections are different than the reader’s own. In short it breeds tolerance. If only one weren’t charged (the price of the book) for the experience.

So I charged on, unsure of whether I could come to some position of reckoning with Ramke’s speaker in this book. This was dismaying because after “Matter,” a book largely concerned with epistemology, and a book I thoroughly enjoyed, I was wondering whether I may have made a wrong turn into this book.

After all, the long cycle of poems in “Against the Cycle of Saint Ursula (Carpaccio)” in which the saint sets out with the Pope from Rome for Cologne only to be slaughtered upon their arrival does not lend a reader to a deep massage of the feel-good spot. Also in this poem the life of, presumably, the poet and his relationship to his itinerant mother is juxtaposed against the life of Saint Ursula.

In “Surface Tension” the last lines that one comes across are “People touch and between them is a layer of darkness a thin skin of no-light keeping them apart. A world. To touch is to darken the space between. The tear is bright, it glistens, is a lens—the tear is the girl in light and the shape the world takes.” After I read these lines I knew I was in a space where all is mediated by sadness. I am not given over very easily to combing through the layered growth of pervasive sadness. Yet I continued to watch Ramke’s display in the book, perhaps a bit awkwardly, as though I were watching the pornography of grief.

I pressed on, knowing that, like eating spinach, reading this book may be good for me. I felt that it might be an important place for me to go after peering over my 8-year-old son’s shoulder as he watched his cartoons and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. But still there was more darkness as in “The Science of Reunion and Opposition”:

What is the dark if not the warning
against which we wildly wave
our little hands like antennae
dreading the crushing weight of wisdom,
of absurd logic and laughable necessity.
It is a hopeless case, and I disclaim it.
I am such a burden to me, so homemade
and so necessary.

Here the speaker seemed to self-consciously acknowledge that he is his own worst enemy, stewing up his own burden of grief as though it emanated from an internal crock pot held deeply within him.

The grief seems almost to be a natural element within the world, clinging to every bump and fold of the space-time continuum. Again, from “The Science of Reunion and Opposition”:

If I had bones to break, it would mend them
If I had numbers to puzzle, it would delude them
into submission, it is such a world
such a speculative ambition.
All is in flames, and we wish it so.
All is flame, and wishes. So.

And a little earlier in the poem, the speaker wishes for exclusion from this world.

. . . I do NOT wish
to extend so vulgarly into the world,
the room, to displace the air so rudely

The physical world seems to be a place where the ill-mannered dwell. It is thoughtless and inconsiderate too. Anything that evokes physical sensation in the speaker is “casually arrogant.”

However, Ramke is not a poet who uses his display of words to primarily explore an emotional landscape, even though the landscape of grief and darkness is dominant. He is not a confessional poet.

Like the often-invoked Rilke, Ramke’s speaker wants to seek refuge in the immaterial, the other realms (where one thinks terrifying angels might roam?). The primary other realm that comes to call is the realm of the textual. The textual interrupts continually throughout the book. It frequently emerges as marginalia (near the right-hand margin), commenting on what is going on in the text of the left-hand margin. The textual colors the physical world it is commenting on, and it serves as periodic escape hatches for the reader to bail out of the dominant left-hand margin “text of the actual world.” the brief right-hand margin quotations from mostly serious literary sources [no quotes from the Beatles or Steven Wright or Oprah Winfrey or any pop culture personality for that matter here] such as, Anaxagoras, Maurice Blanchot, John Ashbery, the Bible, Shakespeare, Rilke, Empedocles, Wallace Stevens, Pythagoras, etc.

One place where the textual actually competes with the physical is in “Moths and the Occasional Dog.”

Someone’s telephone ringing in the distance—
a sound of traffic like some ocean—wind in trees et
cetera, closer—the occasional dog—Siehe, ich lebe

I love Rilke because German is not English but almost
and I hide again and again in translations each
an obvious failure each providing room for me, Reader.

Reading a burning book turning the tinder page
at night by the light of the burning book reading
nothing burns like paper like nothing alive.

A little cluster of words to arrange—
house, school, church, a village, see how
the lights glow through painted windows.

(A bottle in the medicine cabinet
is labeled “hope” but none of us
is fooled all who can read know better.)

False fronts like western towns in the movies
behind which a duplicate reality lies
the difference is lighting—erotic to pornographic.

Seduction to delivery—the brightness of the room
and the color of its light will change or
the neon sign blinks in on

the lovers, sometimes blue,
sometimes bathed in blood
it would appear, if we could see.

The speaker is “hiding in translations” and tending the written word as though tending a bonfire. The translations here are literal ones [Siehe, ich lebe is from Rilke’s 9th Duino Elegy] and the translation of te physical world into text. The words that are arranged on the page create an alternative reality that, though false, serves as suitable alternative where a little fake brightness can seep through (unlike the actual physical reality) and deliver its judgment of the fates and lives of humans.

As I read through the book, it became more apparent that as illusory as it is, Ramke’s speaker seeks refuge in the immaterial, the particular immateriality of the text. In “String” this business with texts approaches the erotic:

Her hair thick with music lies
on me. Each time is the first. Consider
that she now predicts gravity, her theory
an art: an accident of history makes her young.
Her skin is paper and her eyes are ink.
There is no note she cannot be, no need.
Music is something she might die of, or art or
that other mathematics, the one that predicts
the end of everything.

The skin is paper and her eyes are ink. Is the text the feminine other or are there associations to be made here?

As I continued with my voyeurism into another man’s grief and his literal eroticizing of the text, wading hip deep into the snatches of quoted text in the margins, and allowing myself to become ever more haunted by texts that stand apart from the physical world, I wondered how I might satisfyingly depart the ride I was on. I was growing more and more anxious about whether I was on a “trip” that might deposit me in some unexpected aura or whether I was being driven to a final destination, a subject matter that would be summary for all that had transpired beforehand.

I admit I finally “arrived” during the last piece in the book “Gravity and Levity.” For me, this was the piece de resistance within the whole book.

Picking up on numerous images and references that have been sprinkled elsewhere in the book (see herons, Rilke, music, bleeding bodies, mathematics, explosions, theories), Ramke’s speaker engages the notion of difficulty. In line 40 he says, “In German, a language, the art of heaviness is called schwerkraft [gravity (right-hand marginalia].” The cognate for this word is gravity or perhaps more accurately “gravitational force;” however, Ramke correctly observes that schwer translates to difficulty (or more figuratively heaviness). The next few lines also quote a Rilke poem of the same name:


Mitte, wie du aus allen
dich ziest, auch noch aus Fliegenden dich
wiedergewinnst, Mitte, du Staerkste.
Stehender: wie ein Trank den Durst_

Durchstuerzt ihn die Schwerkraft.
Doch aus dem Schlafenden faellt,
wie aus lagernder Wolke,
reichlicher Regen der Schwere.

The Force of Heaviness

Center, how you fall away from everything,
draw yourself away, even from flying creatures
come back to yourself, center, you, the mighty.
You stand upright: the force of heaviness rushes

through a standing man as drink through thirst.
But falling from the sleeper,
as though from a resting cloud,
is the rain endowed with a difficult weight.

[translation mine]

One might say that, for Ramke, the difficult weight is the trap of the physical world. One does not escape it easily and not without consequence. But heaviness can also be seen as ponderousness, and in the book Ramke among many other things, ponders, and he ponders beautifully. It is the beauty of this thought world that lures him away from the grief and difficulty of the physical world.

In I saw in “Gravity and Levity” that perhaps Ramke’s subject matter is the difficulty of being ponderous, the difficulty of difficulty. This was the way in to the book, the way in that I had been hoping for all along. The grief, the wounds held on to for so long, the hard edges, the textual interruptions of the physical world are all markers of a difficulty that is central to much of Ramke’s work.

We as readers are not going to arrive at the other end of the thing without enduring some bruises along the way: the obfuscations, the obscure reference that sends one shuffling off after reference materials, the discontinuities, the brave associative leaps, the unintentional darkness of the human psyche reflecting the world it perceives. But Ramke acknowledges the difficult journey at the end of the book.

This is a bigger world that it was once
it expands an explosion it can’t help it it has

nothing to do with us with whether we know or
not whether our theories can be proved

whether or not a mathematician
knew a better class of circles

(he has a name, Taniyama, a Conjecture)
than was ever known before—

not circles, elliptic curves. not doughnuts.
Not anything that is nearly, only is, such

a world is hard to imagine, harder to live in,
harder still to leave. A little like love, Dear.

The “Dear” at the end is quite probably the reader. It is difficult to leave the world of the book that Ramke has created, but indeed we must (as readers). In this last reference to a dearly beloved, Ramke has acknowledged the difficulty of creating such a world as the book portrays and the difficulty off inhabiting it for the reader. It is only one’s passion, a love of sorts that stands as a model for how this is to be accomplished. In this last line Ramke seems to be saying that to be charged with a true passion for something is equal to enduring difficulty. By the tie one has reached the end of Airs, Waters, Places the reader has earned Ramke’s appellation of “Dear.”

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Dan Beachy-Quick’s Mulberry weaves an intricate web of lyrical quasi-Dickinsonian fragments together in a manner that is reminiscent of a silkworm eating a mulberry leaf and, from its mouth, spinning a web from a single thread. This is the silkworm’s cocoon that eventually transforms the silkworm into a winged creature. The metaphors for the poet and the spoken word/text are apparent.

I use “spoken word/text” mainly because it is evident that Beachy-Quick intends his assemblage of found text and common utterance to be music in the mouth. Just as the text reiterates the fact that the silkworm’s silk is spun from its mouth, Beachy-Quick is noting that the point of origin for all poems is the mouth. The central organ for the poet is not necessarily mind, but mouth.

Another element that Beachy-Quick features prominently in the mix is a 6000-year-old Chinese urn that was constructed by rolling the clay into a thin coil and forming ring upon ring until the urn was completed. This is Beachy-Quick’s model for constructing Mulberry in such a layered fashion. Each poem is a vessel that is made of an accretion of “language coils.” These coils are often repeated in the design of other poem-vessels in the rest of the book. To my taste, the word that best describes the movement in these poems is swirl, a path circling around an absent center that is slowly filled with a sense, almost an apparition, of what is there.

The motif of the coil also presents itself in the overall organization of the book. The major sections are set off by small bullet-like dots that mark the beginning of each section. The number of bullet-like dots varies at the beginning of each section, and they follow the pattern: 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 4. The repetition and re-sequencing in this series of dots mirrors the kind of repetition of the motifs that exist in the musical fragments. In addition there is an icon of a coil that is used to break up sections (perhaps individuate single poems?) within the bulleted sections. Like with the aforementioned bullet sequence, there seems to be progress, but then there is always backtracking, starting over from the beginning.

Record no oiled tongue, diary—
Note my lantern bruises the low
Clouds with light the evening
We talked. Almonds in a bowl;
She ate none. I did
Not bid her remove her dark
Gloves as sometime before she had done.
Her dress not so clean as before.
A last brand not rescued to flame—
No billow but breath, and breath
Too short a line to twine
Our hands in marriage: I left
A last time. Her in widow’s silk—
My lantern clothed in morning
Dawns on this road so late tonight
The white birches I believe,
I believe I could have loved
Her, her white wrists
White the birch trees by lantern bared,
Black gloves pulled off at night
Become the night . . . . Do you hear?
That pulse? The deer wander
Between her hands, glean fallen
seed at hand, bed down in fallen
Needles and grass. Those green discs
Afloat in the night are their eyes
Caught in lantern light. Can it be
So many wake the forest glows
With sight? See and am seen. A pulse
At the stump is breath and rest
And breath again. Infinite
In store the game of this land.
Note the plumage of the turkey.
Note the thick meat at breast.
Sap: syrup. Pine: plank. A copse
Of wood is cord for furnace. A copse
Is cottage, too. The owl in the hollow
Tree screeches because I am too close
To truth. Note the almond
Tree overmuch with fruit. The almond
Pressed is oil sweet. The almond bit
Is a smoky meat that leaves—note it:
The tongue bathed in oil.

In this piece “Record no oiled tongue, diary” the resemblance to Dickinson is apparent in the title, the often inverted structure in the sentence, the odd enjambments that color the ensuing line, and in the capitalized first letter of each line. This tendency toward the antique meshes with the subject matter in this poem. Much of the language seems to be culled from one of Beachy-Quick’s favorite sources for found phrases, the diaries of early settlers. Interestingly, though, the domestic situation maps onto the rustic contemporary almost as readily, and this is the intriguing spell of the work by Beachy-Quick. The contemporary and the antique conflate. One begins to believe, especially in other parts of this book-length poem (spun from a single thread) that the wife that is being referred to is the author’s (Beachy-Quick’s?) wife, and that these are lyric poems of a quiet, domestic life.

The almonds, the breath, the silk, the lantern, the white birches, the black gloves, the pulse are all repetitive images. The poem is bookended by the notion of a tongue bathed in oil, a phrase that generally means a smooth talker, someone with a glib tongue. Is the male speaker in this piece just such a man? The man who has left this widowed woman even though he could have loved her?

Even though the oiled tongue at the end is a literal one and at the beginning is a more figurative one, the fact that the poem uses the oiled tongues as poles for the poem suggests an invitation to judgment of the man even as he insists he does not want his diary to depict him as speaking in any other but a straightforward manner.

Certainly this is not the case for Beachy-Quick whose iterations of images strike this reader as very mannered constructions. The poems are as much about their craftedness as they are their subject matter, which for the most part, is the realm of the domestic. In this way Beachy-Quick owes as much to George Oppen as Forrest Gander does.

But along with these American writers, the swirl of his words owes even more to the Italian neo-avant garde writer Antonio Porta whose “to open” with its violent semi-narrative. Porta’s swirl of signifiers seems to reference some specific sexual violence, but like a rape narrative, never quite lands on the actual thing that has happened. It glances off the very thing that it is trying to articulate. In much the same way the speaker in these poems seems to be circling around the gist of the matter, partly out of respect for that kind of truth which is difficult to disclose with pinpoint accuracy and partly as an homage to the now, the present, that makes language insufficient to catch up and to express living in the present moment.

However, in a poem that is clearly even more pointed about its reference to the lives of the past, the lives of the early settlers, the speaker in “Posterity, this is me Now” uses a similar “language coil” effect, layering phrase on phrase, reworking the interstices between layers so that the vessel will hold water. What makes this piece particularly interesting is that it is a kind of disjointed narrative with the crucial information about these settlers withheld until the last two lines. When Beachy-Quick delivers:

We live in the sound. He found
Our voices pinned to the trees.

the reader understands Beachy-Quick’s affirmation of the insubstantiality of sound in the present moment. In the second line the reader comprehends the drama that has been building up to that last bit of revealed information. Sonically, the internal rhyme between “sound” and “found” is the motor that drives our ears to the end of the line. Also, the voices of absent people who have fled the village (only to disappear entirely from the historical record) connects logically back to the sound in the previous line.

In addition to the interconnectedness between the lines of a particular poem, one can also find word-allusions to other parts of the book. One might notice that “sap,” “syrup,” “the woods,” “a breast” also appear in “Record no oiled tongue, diary.” In a variation on a theme, the “pinned notes on the trees” appear in other poems elsewhere in the book. Once a word appears, Beachy-Quick has no inhibitions about circling back on it and spreading it throughout the book, mapping it to different contexts, in this way connecting one poem to the next in a long, continuous thread. It is this interwoven connection that also hints at the responsibility of the part to the whole, of the individual to the collective, of the dead to the living.

In “east east the great lake” the speaker’s voice seems much more contemporary, but as readers we are never very far from the idyllic. A plethora of natural words and imagery flood this section. The presence of the wife echoes against the would-be wife in “Record no oiled tongue, diary.” Yet, the poem is much more self-conscious than other sections. Beachy-Quick even seems to drop in a little ars poetica (always necessary in a sprawling poem for those who might be wondering what in the heck the author is doing.)

I sing my love to thought
In time// a silken art // philosophy
in margins // the eye cocoons
within the tongue one silken strand

Here we have something of Beachy-Quick’s poetic process. Vision is the font of the material verbiage which encases the tongue the way a silkworm encases itself in a cocoon. And of this hand-to-mouth feeding of the visual to the spoken, Beachy-Quick resorts to using the term “thought” to describe this process, a kind of marginal philosophy that has no system except for the placement of its words in interesting patterns of sound, with meaning connoted. This marginal philosophizing holds up the supple god of the present moment. All is at once extemporaneous and ever-associative.

Yes, thought takes its place quite readily in Beachy-Quick’s presentation, but is there “feeling” for those who might, more traditionally, seek this. Even though Beachy-Quick would be easily tagged by such a reader as an experimentalist, there are plenty of human connections and hints of the sensuous for the reader. First and foremost of these is the relationship of marital love. Beachy-Quick’s speaker(s) are frequently in consort position, yet never is there any full frontal display. Creaturely habits endure, and are for the most part caught within nature’s web. Occasionally, the speaker agonizes over a fit of anger or invokes grandmother whose palm was the whole bed of the lake. Most of these connections, though, are subsumed within Beachy-Quick’s habit of looking closely and seeing pattern. It is almost an ingrained sensibility, the way a spider or silkworm spins its web or cocoon. I can imagine that spider or silkworm almost anticipates the pattern before it happens. The human relationships are leveled with the setting and even placed next to the insect world (as Beachy-Quick, in Kafka-like fashion equates himself to the silkworm).

Beachy-Quick’s comparison of surfaces might unnerve some readers who look for rhetorical display that is short on ornamentation and interesting foible. This kind of reader (let us call him “laconic hombre”) will surely tire of what he sees as Beachy-Quick’s incessant word games. But this is not to say that Beachy-Quick’s Mulberry is bereft of incisive bursts. Many of the short Dickinsonian fragments penetrate and break the skin of the reader, yet it is through their repetition and re-contextualization that they lose their edge as words aimed at making a direct impression. These are words that do not assert themselves, but allude to other situations from which the reader can draw his/her own patterns of association or even of what may have happened.

“I said no prayers, but had milk reflects Beachy-Quick’s interest in the hesitancy to speak. The poem begins with italicized phrases, phrases which are assumed to be from a diary of an early Puritan settler. With these italicized sections (and a few other italicized phrases like I danced my dance) Beachy-Quick connects a contemporary domestic scene. The wife is reminding the speaker to practice his Hebrew, but the speaker seems nonplussed by this, matter-of-factly saying, “I spoke a page.” The speaker seems much more intent on watching an inchworm eat a leaf in its own backyard, watching it do its own thing. In this way its own instinctive behavior connects to the repetition of I danced my dance previously in the poem. The fact that the speaker is reluctantly concerned about the language of the past, a learned and codified language, yet engrossed in the personal expression of the inchworm, underscores Beachy-Quick’s seemingly intense focus on the instinctual habit of making language new while being shackled by the languages of the past. If behavior is another such language, then Beachy-Quick seems to be calling for a re-invention of human gesture, a re-invention of human speech patterns in particular.

While some might describe Mulberry as rangy, to this reader, the range of diction never strays from “poetic language”. Despite Beachy-Quick’s expressed interest in early American history, Puritan diaries, language philosophy, art history, and religious mysticism, (or maybe because of it) his poems never drag any diction from any contemporary setting beyond the domestic situation and natural imagery. There is not a city in sight. Perhaps to do so would have undermined the credibility of the one continuous thread from the past Puritan settlers to the contemporary domestic milieu. However, without a nod in the direction of a more familiar contemporary setting, it was hard for this reader to make the associative leap that the lives and struggles of the past are intimately connected in a single piece with those of us living in the present moment. This is curious as Beachy-Quick certainly would like for us to exalt an all-inclusive now where the past is contained in the present. Perhaps Beachy-Quick means to have the past lives of the Puritan settlers whose diaries he has mined to stand apart and separate from us now. Are they merely historical artifacts? Too many associative leaps are drawn between the two for me to believe that is the case.

Can one live the life of the Puritan in the city? Is the Puritan way of life just an oddity that makes for something to muse on, given that its mores and means are so far from our own today?

Ultimately, Beachy-Quick is probably not all that interested in the kind of political statement that pits the traditional versus the modern or one that equates the two. Rather, he seems to have a more aesthetic interest in the quality and fabric of these kinds of lives. Like Oppen, he might prefer to point out that the personal is the political. The small patterns embedded in the way one lives one’s life are intensely political. the way one uses things, today, for example, is as important as to whom or to what organization one has mailed a check of support. The small rituals of one’s domestic life is the locus from which all political choices spring. This would probably be something that Beachy-Quick’s Puritans could understand. Their daily procedures were all geared towards showing their love towards God in particularly ritualistic ways. There weren’t many flourishes tolerated as far as behavior was concerned. The fact that God (and showing one’s love towards God) was the primary organizing principle for the Puritans, then it is easy to see how one’s daily devotions reinforce the group cohesion, which, in turn, is a political act.

Beyond this observance of the political in each daily act, Beachy-Quick’s assemblage of the routines of daily life into a non-linear, dynamical space, hint at an almost mystical order in the daily routines of life. Ultimately, juxtaposing and intermingling a strangely patterned nature with an equally strangely patterned domestic life, Beachy-Quick draws a haunting parallel between the realm of nature and the realm of the human. That these two are of a piece strikes me as the raison d’etre of Mulberry. The inherent order/disorder of nature is at work pulling, pushing, gnawing, clawing also at the most basic fabric of our lives.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Some manuscripts become published because they present a unique way of organizing and presenting the material. They provide a novel context. Some manuscripts get published based on the strength of the language, sound, rhythm and content of the writing. Camille Norton’s Corruption was probably chosen for both its concept and its content. Corruption is the story of a life as it becomes corrupted (read educated?) by pleasure and learning, by the internecine warfare between the heart and the mind.

In the first part of Corruption the National Poetry Series winning book, Camille Norton deftly weaves a contemporary speaker into the lives of Florentine paintings done during the age of Medici rule, a ruling family that was as noted for its corruption as it was the birth of the Italian Renaissance.

Using the material culture of the Medicis, a green baize (felt) table, paintings by Caravaggio, Savonarola’s cape, Norton meditates on their significance during their time while she marries them with a contemporary speaker who is in the midst of various sorts of bodily corruption. In doing so, she seems to be equating the era of licentiousness among the Medicis to the obsession with bodily pleasure in our own.

The speaker in these poems, however, is more than nostalgically equating these two eras in human history. The setting in both this time and Medici Florence serves the purpose of letting the speaker explore the mysteries of desire, particularly that of the feminine in its complicated system of restrictions and allowances. She sees hints of the feminine in a painting by Buonaroti hanging in The Gallery of Slaves. A slave that is depicted appears to be indistinct with regard to gender, but despite the young slave’s beauty, Norton’s contemporary speaker sees the slave as “imitating that look we call femininity.” The speaker recognizes the submissive role of the slave as one that inscribes the feminine, and it is this role that the contemporary speaker in the book continually negotiates, negotiating how the submissive must subjugate desire.

Paired with this contemporary speaker’s focus on the curtailment of desire is another concern for the life of the mind. The speaker sees the life of the mind as a dark and heavy counterpart to the life in the physical world where beauty reigns.

The Ideal City

Anonymous, c. 1475, Tempera on Panel,
Calleria Nazionale Delle Marche, Urbino

for Maurine Stuart, Roshi (1922-1990)

After a long exile, the city of the mind must look like this—
placid because uninterrupted by what happens next

and therefore pleasing, pleasing and empty.

Here the light clicks across the white and gray
Carrara marble and pietra serena

going nowhere, intending nothing.
It is beautiful. It is itself.

Light then, light as it breezes through
vacant piazzas and quiet loggias,

light as it unravels,
illuminating interiors where no one lives or dies or loses ground.

Light as a systematic display of single point perspective
hastening now around the columns of the rotunda

then slipping through a small red door
into the refuge of a stanza.

All your life you thought of such a room and then you found it.

When a woman starting up from the sensible world
catches sight of beauty, she should not look back

at all she used to love. Her body moves
into a light so absolute it casts no shadow.

Nobody here, nothing to do, you said in your hospital bed.

Then you disappeared.

The body is pitted against the mind in its ideal city, empty and therefore beautiful. Yet it is surprising how frequently Norton champions the mind despite what is signaled in the verse. These poems are intelligent, scholarly. It is not surprising to see how Campbell McGrath would find this collection so appealing. The poems make their mark because of the careful attention employed and the connections derived from these observations, connections which range all over the map. This is not to say that Norton has as much of a prose-ish ear as McGrath. There are many areas in the book where image and sound take precedent, and it is clear that Norton finds the feminine beauty more attractive than male logos.

In section 2 of Corruption Norton turns her gaze away from historic depictions as they appear in works of art and towards a speaker’s experience (presumably Norton’s own experience).

But in “Camera Obscura” the poem that serves as the title for section 2 of the book, Norton reveals:

When I looked down I could see
straight into the heart of a scene, only in reverse,
so that I saw history first, then the transfer
of the present bleeding through the pinholes
like light on the screen of my mother’s face,
the way it settled unhappily there

Seeing first the past in the present is an obscure perspective for sure. But it helps to explain why the past is always cropping up in section 1, where the Medici Era seems more securely fastened to her work than the present day. The Medici helps to explain the temperament of our own time. This obscure perspective also helps to explain why in section 2, as Norton reflects on the construction of her self, she finds her first impulse to see how the past helped to shape her temperament, her push to pursue the life of the mind as compensation for an apparent lack of it in her childhood.

Section 2 is the autobiographical section, the section where Norton spreads her life (especially her familial life) before the reader. None of these is more affecting than her poem for her father where she tries to visit him after he has died through an opening into the dream world. She does so in order to repair what had been damaged between them, but she is rebuked and finds the settling of the real material world has exacted a resolution to their relationship.


The night my father died the salt and the rain went out of him.

leaving behind a reverberation
like sunlight skimming through glass

It was like that just after
and for some time
it was like that

like light behind film strip, a ticking mutability in everything
left behind on the nightstand, it was so little, it was nothing
in the way of effects
He had nothing to leave us—

his poor man’s watch winding down imperceptibly in its steel case,
the narcotic trade in empty pill cups, nine copies of his brother’s
face on nine 1987 Mass cards, his radios, his radio batteries,
his hearing aid (despised, cast off, it never fit),
The Philadelphia Inquirer folded at the spine as he would have
folded it,
his white cotton handkerchiefs, clean and triple-creased—
he did not die penniless, exactly—

the object world survived him
And it was animate

Animate with its own disappearance
as if it had bubbles in it, tiny apertures
and pinpricks of negative space
through which we would all disappear sooner or later

Why this should console me I cannot say but it did
and I knew, even as I stood in the door of his closet,
that when the scent of his shirts began to degrade
I could do nothing to stop it
though I must have felt I could follow it as if it were

a thread
leading to the other side of matter
where the problem of matter is repaired

They say that you should not importune the dead
too soon in their dying

because they go on dying awhile elsewhere

But one night soon after we buried him,
while I lay sleeping in my father’s bed,
I knocked at his dream and entered it

He seemed surprised, as if I were an acquaintance
who had climbed the stairs on a whim, without invitation
He was sitting mildly on a small chair in a clean blue shirt
He was young and slim, my bachelor’s father, he was unaware
that he was young and slim, that his hair was black
as a pirate’s, that he would ever grow old or that I
would ever be born
Until he said: I’m dead, can’t you see that?
Get away from here
And I was out, out with a force

I trespassed and survived it

Then my sister’s hands were on me.
She was warm, she smelled of chocolate
She brought me water in a bathroom cup
that had ridges in it from where it had melted
in the dishwasher a long time ago
We talked ourselves to sleep, we slept
past the broad stripes of July sun
ticking across the pavement
We slept all afternoon
and when we woke

the surface of the world had slipped
and locked into place
between our bodies and the myriad portals
through which the branching streams
flow in the darkness

From this poem Norton further explores the nature of an indeterminate intermediate state between the living and the dead. In a series of poems related tobardos (a Tibetan word that refers to, among Buddhists, the state of existence between incarnations), she enters into a dialog with her parents (though mostly her mother) while they are in their transitional states and wonders why they were the way they were. Norton’s “mind is crying out” to them and contemplating some regrets (her mother’s dissembling mind) she still has, wondering what piece of her parents is left in her.

What part of you belongs to me,

bitter, beautiful woman?
Spit on the ground.

Come back to your body.
Your own mind’s shining before you,

all that willfulness, bad temper,
all that toughness carried lightly

The contemplation of her parent’s imprint brings the speaker in section 2 to examine herself for the choices she has made in her life, (“and if we choose, what do we choose—the manner of our arrival or of our departure?) the choice of where love’s pleasures have been taken, the choices of relationships squandered and built. All the while the speaker is badgered about these choices by the mother.

I’m forty-eight and I hear my mother
in the well of my bed, like a bellwether rising late

from the dream of loneliness:
You chose this, you chose this

In section 3 of the book Norton further screws into the self she has created. However, the self vanishes in “Monday Music,” an unusual piece from the perspective that the speaker’s self is derived from a vanished Monday Music Club 1912 that, again prefaces the past within the present. In this case, like the music club, Norton’s speaker seems to be flattening and disappearing, a fallen subject that has attained its vanishing point.

Monday Music

Nobody, no one, not one, not a single one
hears me at the piano playing the white keys.

I make a truant sound.
I am as eloquent as anything

I heard in the world on Sunday.

Do you remember those conversations?
Accidental, repetitious as language in dreams?

I wonder why it is I know so little
about the black keys,

how they marry and come apart
in the history of a scherzo

or in the history of a scene
in which I play myself

playing only the white keys.

Sometimes I write myself
into a sheet of music

using the usual notations,
my little signs and jokes

of self disappearing.

White, white paperwhites
bloom in winter.

There are birches outside the house.
White crocuses in the snow.

The house is white too.

Above the door, on the lintel,
someone’s carved the words

Monday Music Club 1912.

Before the first war happened and the other wars,
the door swings open on its iron hinge

and there’s no one at the piano,

nobody I tell you,

as the door swings open.

Like the diminishing sustain of a piano key, this speaker floats into white noise, which is aptly signaled with the paperwhites, white crocuses, birches in winter. The emanation for this speaker seems eerily to be a historical point which, though it has made its imprint in the past, no longer has much effect on the present in its insubstantial form.

This piece is the gateway to section three because it leaves the historical self behind and ventures forward as a self inscribing itself in the world, sometimes to the point of its own negation. The self navigates its cultural present and even turns to forms in nature in “Songs Against Ending,” the hedonistic fruit fly, the multi-gendered earthworm, the wayfaring and embattled water beetle, the moth holding to its own shape and aesthetic. These are Norton’s totem animals in section 3. They are her guides and stencils to the shaping of self. Later, in “Wild Animals I Have Known” Norton invokes animals as stand-ins, but these animals are not taken from nature but rather from animals in stories, fables, and mythology: the Frog Prince, The Ugly duckling, the “clone,”the hydromedusa, and Babe the Blue Ox. In this way the self is not shaped in a cultural abyss, without information being thrown into the mix. References to Stein and Levertov also appear as well as language from “Hush” that sounds vaguely Deleuze & Guattari-like.

. . . like minimalist
compositions scored to re-
repeat, repeat, repeat

the pulse of machines
the pulse of our desiring
to live in machines

However, it is in “Ugly Duckling” where Norton/Norton’s speaker makes its clearest identity statement:

I speak from here, where pressure blooms

out of me like a baby or like a sac
of meaning and what I want to say

is that I am not what I was. I am
a changeling, half-creaturely,

half other-than-creature,
like a mind inside a body

or like a coil inside a girl,
her sleeping snake, her phallic shape

waking into utterance.

The line that is most interesting is the “half other–than-creature.” Would this mind inside a body be like the software that runs the CPU? Is this the cultural programming that the speaker seems to allude to again and again in section 3?

Norton reminds us that the self is not a SCUBA diver, contained all by itself within its separate domain. The exchanges are with the historical and natural primarily, but also with the literary and the musical, and all of these play a part in fixing the self within its grid of operations. The instructions are played out for the self again and again until the “file” is corrupted, unable to be retrieved, vanished into the unparseable.

I suspect some might find Norton’s work, like Campbell McGrath’s, a bit too scholarly. The historical artifacts embedded within the verse might strike some as treatise-like, and for this reason, they might seem unfriendly to the common truck driver or cafe waitress who needs to know nothing about the machinations of the Medicis in pre-Renaissance Florence. To this, I respond with curiosity. I wonder what makes this presumption so. Is it all working-class people who have no appreciation for the cultural and historical presence in their daily lives? Or is it only American working class people who, as they are too frequently depicted in movies and TV, damned righteous about their ignorance. The reality always strikes me as far from this kind of depiction. In this regard, the backdrop for many of the historical poems in section 1 are not solely accessible to someone with an advanced degree. They are for everyone who has ever wrestled with how the heart finds a mind to attach to, and how the mind gives way to the heart even as both are undercut by the body’s demands. This is the story of mutual corruption of heart and mind and the natural impulse that makes it possible.

Note: For those within hollerin’ distance of this blog’s point of emanation, please bear witness to the fact that Camille Norton will appear Mon. Sept. 25 at 7:30 PM at the Sacramento Poetry Center for a reading.

Friday, April 21, 2006


One of the most endearing things about the wind is that it is impossible to harness it as it blows through you. Unless, of course, you happen to be Uakti. Then the wind blows through you and seduces as it does so.

In Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic the spirit of Uakti is alive and hypnotic. The phrasal clusters and perturbations from the exterior that Hillman assembles and merges together ring like the intonations of a bamboo flute droning in order to inspire a meditative state. Pieces of Air in the Epic is the second book in a proposed tetrology honoring the four elements. Cascadia was the first book dedicated to an examination of the metaphors of the earth. Pieces of Air in the Epic deals with air and its various manifestations—wind, whipper of dust, medium for sound and light, container of the vocable and song, matrix for aura, marker of the ineffable (such as the space between the vibrating strings of string theory) etc.

However, there is ample time spent “commenting/noting” the current political zeitgeist, as if it were unavoidable to have the tenor of our current political age to infiltrate one’s mental space. Such a piece early in the book is the following:

The Value of Empty Protest

Longing declined;
whatever had been charged with it,

what curls, what
octave flowers
angered the voice ramp

which for a while called
from their gray-rim signs
Come back to the stamped
as people cheered,

wearing an abyss
for the whorled
capitol, threads dangling

from their placards,
from misery of capital, known

as a crowd
in the crowd and
they would lose again,

as a wheel loses,
taste, past,
skies reptilian and vast,

nothing to sell but being
sold, mute hands clapping at the
why of whys—

This piece seems to be a nod toward the frustration of so many who, in the face of the current administrations’ predilection toward gut instinct, lament the current administration’s imperviousness to fact and data. The piece also seems to lament the American public’s perception of wearily being bought and sold. [Note: Number of consecutive years that the U.S. median income has failed to increase: 5; Number of consecutive years that the percentage of Americans living in poverty has increased: 4 (Harper’s Index November 2005)]

The intriguing aspect of this poem is whether to read the title as sincere or ironic. The speaker(s) seem(s) to point to acts of empty and useless protest with “placards” on the “stamped lawn.” Is the speaker(s) suggesting the value of this kind of protest is valueless? Or is the speaker suggesting there is something strangely cathartic in experiencing in vain protests as a manner of finding personal redemption? The last line seems to leave the speaker(s) in a state of wonder, in a state of awe at the bewildering force that shapes historical moments. Is this the value, the value in recognizing the point when things have taken a turn? Of course, this kind of perceived abstract distancing always inspires the ire of those who participated in the protest, inviting the query of who the speaker might be that he/she can afford such a privileged perspective and not be entangled in it (as they have chosen to be).

The strategy of the poem is to use rather oblique language to get at the themes mentioned above. This, as opposed to an explicit treatment of the protest scene and explicit commentary on the political subject matter, places the protest into the realm of the abstract. It is meant to be pondered as social phenomenon the way one contemplates a change in shape of a cloud or the consequences of a tectonic shift in 1906. This is to say that whatever is “going on” in Hillman’s poems, it is usually measured through the lens of contemplation and abstraction and the beautiful and terrible fractals that human history proliferates.

Of course, the medium of this abstraction (language) is also fair game for the poems’ speaker(s) to work on. Many pieces let the English language as a construct intrude, such as with “Study of Air in Triangles” where Hillman writes, “When I saw the world’s triangles, some letters came: / First a Y then N & especially A.” The letters occupy a nest and become sound that fills the evening. In this passage, one encounters a theme that is held to in nearly every piece throughout the book. The abstract is present, real, concrete, as concrete as birds’ beaks or the yellow meadow. But in the poem where language has been compared to birds, the speaker asks if “these birds be subject to a geometry”? Is there an ultimate form to the rambling nature of language, a Chomskian deep grammar or some other such structure. The speaker in “Study of Air in Triangles” posits a temporary structure that relates to the triangle, then the speaker reconfigures that structure so that its points align differently. This is the way that Hillman’s speaker(s) move through the world and through poems, confabulating and reconfabulating their physical and mental space.

While some may read Hillman’s work as “fragmented,” echoing the current critical term that is used to describe what Tony Hoagland calls “skittery,” I would use a slightly different term to describe her assemblages. The material, though disparate, does not fracture as much as it is allowed to intrude onto the trace of the poem, or as Hillman puts it so well, it is “side stories leaked into the epic, told by its lover the world.” The relationship of the disparate material to other disparate material in the poem is that of a lover’s relationship, not as agent of deconstruction reminding the reader that the mind’s constructs are fragile and not up to the task. Hillman asserts a more constructive position for the mind. It assembles, but it does so in a manner which suggests artifacts that are lovingly culled by a seasoned archaeologist whose main reason for culling is not to disprove that dinosaurs were a freakish collection of bones and teeth, but to ask questions about how they lived and what they thought about what how they lived.

If this is still fragmentation in some people’s eyes, then it is their task to live with this outlook. Another more fruitful question to ask is what is the spirit of assemblage that is present. Are the movements from one field to the next, rough cuts, jump cuts? Or do they move more slowly, inviting the reader to experience their languor? Are the movements slow accretions or undercuttings? Do they aim at a single revelation or, like their disparate sources, are they meant to reveal a panoply of refracted concepts without a singular conclusion?

A great example of a poem that is ambitious in its form and content and delivers marvelous complexity and breadth is, in my opinion, the centerpiece of the book, “String Theory Sutra.” The poem is divided into two columns. The left column proceeds down the page as single-spaced lines; however, the right hand column, beginning with line two, provides a short line followed by another double-spaced line. The effect is that the reader moves from 1) left column, line one 2) left column, line two 3) right column, line two 4) left column, line three 5) left column, line four 6) right column, line four and so on. The necessary crosstalk between columns suggests the importance of interplay and interaction in texts, primarily between that of reader and writer, but also between writer and subject matter. It is this weave of the thread that ties the form together with the threads of string theory. The poem touches on other ground too, how subjectivity is also threaded together,

The poem ranges from a small meditation on subjectivity, then it touches on the history of the spinning wheel, the nature of string theory and how it resembles the Bay Area community of poets. Then it heads for some quotidian observations made at a park and the insect noises that persist there. A “thread” is then picked up on where the speaker talks about different fabrics—flag cloth that is used as ties for airline pilots, women in medieval times whose weavings took on significance beyond the representational. The seam as metaphor for the poem emerges. The speaker then endeavors to sort out to whom it is presenting itself, who the “you” and the “they” is in the poem. The speaker embarks on the poetics of the poem, its project of making “meanings which hang tatters of dawn’s early light in wrinkled sections of / the druid oak with skinny linguistic branches, Indo-European roots & the weird particle earth spirits”

Dream voices appear. The speaker (imagines?) herself as a seamstress for the missing queen (one of the medieval seamstresses mentioned above? presumably so) A litany of fabrics is presented. An atheist doctor who says “God Bless You” in order to facilitate human connection with his patients is invoked. Then, the speaker heads back to string theory, using its threads as a metaphor for how meaning is sewn into a subjective state. Sisters of the speaker are invoked and told by the queen, “Be what you aren’t.” A short discourse on negation and opposition leads to a questioning of the long-term usefulness of revolution and the role of the nation-state versus the role of the tribe in the history of human social organization (the speaker seems to prefer atomization rather than consolidation . . . is this contrary to “sewing” metaphor in the rest of the poem?) 1937 nylon parachutes are brought into the mix. Churchill and Rimbaud appear. Another metaphor of “sewing,” that of the bringing together of opposites, the Hegelian dialectic, is presented. More lament about the current political state of affairs in America (a prevalent undertaking in the book) surfaces. A segue into Santayana’s “thin thread of calculable continuity” is risked and it bears fruit in the later notion that the thread that stitches together subjectivity can seem ineffable, elusive, shadow-like in its workings. The possibility that the stitching together of subjectivity is invented (like string theory itself) rears its head. The notion of the “stitching” being a mental construct is dealt with. Other motifs, like the flying shuttle and the parsing of the pronouns in the piece return. The reader is reminded that textiles sing and another litany of fabrics is used to ramify this idea.

Then the two lines that serve as the crescendo of this miraculous symphony appear: “Human fabric is dragged out, being is sewn with terror or awe / which is also joy. Einstein called mystery of existence ‘the fundamental emotion.’” Finally, the speaker asks, “How am / I so unreal & yet my thread is real.”

So the synopsis of this long poem, the trace of its path, its “thread,” only runs three paragraphs? Wouldn’t it just have been easier to type in the poem itself? Perhaps. But it would have been a time-consuming proposition as well as a formatting nightmare.

Yes, for those readers who prefer the fixed frame, this poem is not going to satisfy you the way someone with a good, firm, honest handshake would. That’s too bad. Sometimes people try to engage each other with their intelligence, with their language as both considered and playful thing. Is this not at least as legitimate a greeting as the embrace or the double kiss on the cheeks?

If one is interested in writing the long, multiplicitous, intellectually complex poem (by the way, are American poets still allowed to do this?), then “String Theory Sutra” is worth the price of admission for the whole book. It is that sparkling, dazzling jewel that you can’t take your eyes off.

It is one of the two finest long poems (the other being Bin Ramke’s “The Naming of Shadows and Colors”) that I have read in years.

One other kind of treatment that Hillman offers in the book is her rumination on numbers and their “airiness.”

Confused 3’s

Faint confused 3’s dialed from mobiles
Searching for signals from hire hovels

3’s from hire hovels airport users

Stock rubble NASDAQ making info bubble

Crookened stubble George’s W George’s III

U-Bahn girls’ hard-on-sized cell phones
Dialed 3’s snagged in nylon air

Invisibly 3’s = half-hearts sideways

God used 3’s tons of them

Walter B liebened Gretel poor 3-some helium
Face-down mystic Fraulein bitte fraulein please

Rehearten 3’s for no seized-on power

This more discontinuous presentation is a blatant experiment in language. In particular, it addresses the novelty of expression and how numerical terms are abundant within neologisms. The program of this kind of poem appears to be collage. The figures used in this collage indicate a world ruled by numbers that is inhumane and solely utilitarian. “NASDAQ bubbles”, “Face-down mystics,” and “half-hearts sideways” intimate this. The “seized-on power” for which 3’s are reheartened suggests that numerical fluency is the dominant mode of discourse. The legitimacy of numerical abstractions versus the illegitimacy of linguistic abstraction is even seconded by God whom the speaker informs, “used tons of 3’s.” The gist of the poems is that “a man with numbers can put your mind at ease” (as an obscure Paul Simon song puts it).

The juxtaposition of numerical abstracts next to linguistic abstracts occurs in a series of pieces. Hillman has “tribute” poems to 5, 6, and 7 also, and they all reside within the larger structure of “The Corporate Number Rescue Album.” Certainly not too far from the veiled surface is a condemnation of corporate culture.

Another interesting section of the book is the section entitled “Nine Untitled Epyllions.” An epyllion is a “little epic” that was cultivated in the Hellenistic era. It is a narrative that embraces mythological subjects and is characterized elaborate and vivid description, learned allusion, lengthy digression and an interest in psychology. It often narrated only a few events in the life of an epic hero, who is then humanized by being placed in an ordinary situation.

The epyllions that Hillman writes vacillate between white-print-on-black-background poems that are less narrative, almost verging on collage again to the black-print-on-white background poems that are lyrical expressions of a speaker that rapidly becomes decentered from its historical past as seamstress (a motif that is followed up in “String Theory Sutra”) into the present condition of America at war. The seamstress from the past comments on the excesses and stupidities of the war even as the seamstress sews the shroud flags. Everywhere American culture is under indictment.

Another sequence of poems that Hillman includes is the set of ten poems that seem to have a large library as their setting.

: : : An Oddness : : :

A scent rather quietly loves
the library. Readers look up: a
life of paper inside the great
Life: scent of greenly ravished civilization~~
dream of inspiration freed. When a
book is lifted from horizon’s steel
that mystery object spreads an oddness
each call number a timeling of
yellow math, its curve leftover from
epic. the mind had no periphery
for meaning, the several phoenician, sailing
sideways through vowels of the dead.

As the series progresses, the meditation on scholarship turns to comment on history, making meaning, the nature of thoughts (particularly odd ones), the casual slip into dualism and subsequently paradox, the presence of aura, etc. My rendering of these poems above does not do justice to the arrangement on the page. The lines are broken into 1, 2, and 3-word clusters with more than one space from the space bar separating them. This provides the appearance of air between the words, and Hillman is suggesting that in these passageways dust motes can do their thing. In “: : : Epoch of Dust : : :” she writes, “Between each word the century rests its nothing air.” The emptiness that presides is filled up with scattershot words that congeal to found their meanings together as a collective. Whether they are gleaned from other texts or poised at the threshold of experience and observation doesn’t matter because in Hillman’s world (and by extension, the reader’s as well) the source of language isn’t as important as the workmanship involved in putting the pieces of the fabric of a life together.

The ubiquitous odd thoughts that populate Pieces of Air in the Epic are the byproducts of a strange and large world whose bits recombine in unusual patterns. The crossings and connections are “like spare dreams of / citizens where abstraction and / the real could merge.” The presence of strangeness in all its is a celebration of vastness in the world more than it is any kind of tricky intellect designed to goad the reader into accepting the speaker’s brilliance. Pieces of Air in the Epic is a monument to a concerted mind pressing itself on the world (and, by contrast, a mind generous enough to let the world intrude) which results in some anomalous high-flying sparks.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Imagine a life that is treated with restriction enzymes so that the fragments of that life are swirling around in a tiny amount of liquid at the bottom of an Eppendorf tube. As the fragments recombine, they come together to anneal at strange junctures. The trauma of violence and abuse anneal to the colors and inexplicable rhythms of nature. The DNA that results miraculously produces an animal that is both “cerebral” and “emotional” and can be loved and cared for by either camp. These are poems that beg to be domesticated in that they prepare the reader for the familiar wild, the back lot that has grown over with dark, prickly bushes which threaten to draw blood as one wanders through them.

Kocher is the singular Babylon, a collection of shed particles, the considered ruin. She thinks through image and sound (though not to the same extent as Clark Coolidge thinks through sound) in a language that is lush (a term she uses to describe her own work in “Making the Reader Work”). Established meter gives way to a more syncopated feel, a jazz prosody, where the comma serves as breath for the soloist to pursue another direction with the phrasing. Each new direction entangles speaker and reader on a voyage through territory that is unclaimed by any nation. Yet the territory is familiar, populated by bone, blood, and gristle. Love lost and longing. In this manner, the old line drawn between “cerebral” and “emotional” is rent asunder . . . and not a moment too soon.


All night you feel
red horses galloping through your blood
hear a piercing siren, and are in love
with the inexplicable

—Arthur Sze

Through the ocean you weather, deep
waves uncurled into the pain of pink tissue
failing between your ribs, imagine the body
yields to a spell that goes like this:

A band plays a march somewhere.
The sun has found its winter arc.
The volcano looks like an eye from above.

in a love hex, it’s all rhythm
so within each square is another, another
until pain becomes a twin some mornings:
the sharp shape of your lungs galloping.

And what of the past, heals:
watching the fish die, you realize
the dream of horses, the snake
veined like a cock. Now,
before the evening tells you
everything you’ll soon forget, say this:
The living are at my window,
calling me out. I am unconcerned
about what’s over the mountain.
The other side. Yes, the old woman
was beautiful in her death.

Could you have been forsaken
tonight? A painless sleep:
lungs became horses, charged,
stood high on back legs, facing,
their front hooves lightly flanking . . .

If you are lucky,
the temptation to escape takes you
whole at midnight and desire is overripe,
drips the red risk of pomegranate.
Even your footprints can’t find you.

You are lost. Love this.
You are lost and never found.
Here is the healing: the airplane
crosses through your morning
with the roar of last year, a season of icicles
plunged into your sternum, a one-night stand,
a lost fang begging his way into your home.

Forget him. Forget him.

The imperative at the end of this piece is a rhetorical construct that Kocher uses frequently. She weaves her magical web of life fragments and intoxicating sound, but she never abstains from giving direction to the reader. Or is the last line an appeal to hope, that there is a course of action that can be taken which leads one out of the dense emotional forest? the imperative peeking through reminds the reader that there is will in the speaker and not just another dreamy voice walking through the universe and fetishizing things and the life within those things.

Another aspect of this piece that is worth noting (even worth duplicating for those who are not sheepish about weathering the accusation of being “uneven”) is how the diseased condition (that of pleurisy) transforms itself into a “love sickness” and how “healing” is the action that binds these two disparate items together. The interlude with the procession of animals in stanza 4 reins in the Sze epigraph. While some who prefer “the fixed frame” in poetry might find this move unnecessarily digressive, I find this move to expand the scope of the poem into territory that connects with something unresolved in the poem. In doing this, it invites me as a reader for a closer look, a second look, even a third or fourth. I imagine that those who find the “puzzle” aspect of poetry distasteful would flinch at Kocher’s move, but I say we should raise our glass to the good ol’ days (before the easy FOX NEWSification of everything) when it was OK to think and consider a thing for longer than three minutes.

In stanza 5 the metaphor of the horses is returned to explicitly (with the italicized voice picking up the theme this time). In stanza 6 Kocher turns toward the theme of being consumed by passion which will drive the poem to its conclusion where the he is vaguely equated to a lost dog.

That’s a lot of work to move through the various scrims Kocher has placed before the reader, but the following is an even more ambitious piece which speaks to the title of the book.

To Speak is to Speak About the Fall

Babylon in all its desolation is a sight not so awful as that of the human mind in ruins—Scrope Davies


I see these things in my life:
a circle of boulders
perched on a hill, the side of a hill,
a bird flattened by boulders and placed into a fold of sod
buckled on the side of a hill—
a thrush flattened and placed into a can that’s been
cleaned and placed carefully into a fold of sod.

Almost everyone knows the noise
caused by any round
tin object . . . the lid of a canister,
when it slips from one’s grasp.

I am paralyzed to see people eating
alone in restaurants or singly
holed-up in theaters,
keeping the dark near them as siblings
sharing their bad dream
a bed away, or the very old, the old men in grocery stores
holding a can close. The words,
label, the eyes wandering.

Ordinary life shackles us. Swallows us
whole even within our dreaming.


I loved plums. I loved plums most the three summers
I could not eat them without raw hives
swelling my lips and tongue, my throat
thick, closed to breath, plum-purple
arrogant as blood drawn in a cold room by a cold
nurse who does not look at you because
she will love you and you will let her, let her go,
let her take you into a charge of submission and larger yet
her cold hands collapsing into themselves
while her own veins struggle,
blue beneath thin skin.

Let her go.

there were bridges in my life for many years,
bridges in my life where the floes of ice
caught up and scraped the winter into ears of runners
crossing the bridge like thrushes who didn’t care about cold
except winter them from eating—
life, yet, beating in their ears.

Have you forgotten, I’ve touched your palms,
your fingertips . . . Let the gods speak softly of us.
Have you forgotten, if I could forgive, I would . . .


In my death, I would be sitting with Cochise still angry about his children
disappeared into the grass of a quiet field, angry about the indifference
of the wind,
and the deep witness, sky.

The enormous tragedy of your dream is the peasant’s bent shoulders.

If the life, dying, could find sleep,
I would be sitting with Catherine de’ Medici, eating
artichokes served with the brie of her servants’ kitchen.
Thin butter would run from her chin
like a child’s slobber, run from her chin onto my arm
so that now I hear her laughing. She laughs in her purple skirts,
her purple bodice and the posture
of her corset boned with a splay of whale ribbing.

Have you forgotten, she is the noise caused by any round
thin object, of any object falling when it slips from one’s grasp . . .
We have dreamed this all of our lives.

If she falls as I wake, although waking me, my body
will see these things—dumb with paradise,
caught in the open glare of artichokes, the green clutch,
purpled skirt—my life, a circle, perched and buckled.

Here Kocher is ultimately ruminative about her life. She seeks refuge in Cochise and Catherine de’ Medici as foils to her own life which serves as an example of a life fragmented by desire, a mind as ruin. The historic, the everyday, and the dream world converge to offer a tempting splay of possibilities for the life of the contemplative, condemned to being dispossessed of its faculties as it tracks down every imaginable loose end which desire compels it to explore.

But Kocher is not always providing “evasive” assemblage. At times the images align themselves into something more approachable, more willful. In “Vicinity,” suspicion by others fuels the identity statement.


for K.E.Q.

After church, the neighborhood returns to its failing.
The lights come on. Children retreat to their rooms.
In my driveway, ants continue to make good

of the cactus wren’s dead flight while deaf Jim waters
the arbor vitae. The old widow next door to him
checks her car again and looks at my house,
knowing blackness is up to no good,
in her trunk, maybe, or at her roses when
she’s sleeping. Wave hello and pass,

wave hello and pass her mint-green house,
ill-decision, another decade’s color scheme
gone wrong, even in the awnings striped white.
The girl who knew me a decade earlier was right.

I am more black when I’m barefoot.
I am more black when I walk down the street,
carrying my shoes like I just don’t care.

Kocher’s neighborhood is recalled rather matter-of-factly. A denizen of a more racialized past serves as the focal point for Kocher to regard her racial identity as irrelevant, a detail as insignificant as the activities of the ants and the cactus wren. Inclusion of these details of the minute fauna serves to level the concerns in the latter half of the poem with those kinds of minutiae.

Even the most casual reader will notice the syncopation in Kocher’s lines, the repetition and then the lurch forward like in below:

in a love hex, it’s all rhythm
so within each square is another, another
until pain becomes a twin some mornings:

The effect is like that of Charlie Parker (if you make a mistake, make it again). Is the mistake here “another”? Or does the comma just replace the word “and”? It definitely “lurches” at the comma.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . a cold
nurse who does not look at you because
she will love you and you will let her, let her go,
let her take you into a charge of submission and larger yet
her cold hands collapsing into themselves
while her own veins struggle,
blue beneath thin skin.

Let her go.

In this passage the refrain of “let” placed right after the comma sets the reader to considering the speaker’s mind is lurching/darting in another direction and that the linchpin of the new diverted thought is the repeated word. Kocher’s rhythms don’t leap around like Joshua Redman playing “St. Thomas.” They certainly don’t approach Sonny Rollins’ noodling. However, they are central to the way she plies her craft. This is evidenced by this candid photo at a recent reading where she held the fingertips of her right hand above her larynx as she read (see photo below).

When I asked her about it, she said she holds her hand there to feel the resonance of her voice and to register, in a more physical way, the rhythms of her poem. Sound is definitely an important ingredient in her work, and it accentuates the image play and juxtapositions rather than adding noise to the assembled matter.

Finally, there is sassy Kocher, where the spirit that usually dwells in the realm of contemplated beauty is given permission to put a few things on her mind out in the open.

Ode To the Woman Who, On the Day I Earned a Doctorate, Mistook Me For a Shoe Clerk

I want to tell you I loved how your shoes
sparkled like the muted gold

flecked into an east coast diner’s creamy Formica
countertop. I want to tell you how I

imagined them on my wide feet (yellow and crusted
with the desert of five years, walks to the library,

to my truck, to the bar, to my classroom, to my office,
the copy machine, always down, and to the bar again)

and yes, I imagined the thin slips of leather
emerging from beneath the plum-colored robe that would

embarrass and thrill me as I walked the procession, gowned
over my red shoulders. I would sit, in just four hours,

through long speeches by deans I had never known,
but who were happy to tally another retention with a handshake.

I could have forgotten the head cap of my mortarboard,
too small to crown thick African twists damp with pomade

and beeswax. I could have forgotten your tap on my shoulder
at just the moment I was remembering mangoes hanging

heavy on a sparse tree near the top of Saba Island,
so close to the cliff the sea longed to swallow one whole;

but I didn’t. I did not tell you that you were mistaken,
or that my husband’s skin rose into goose flesh at my touch that morning,

even after ten years of waking to the same black mole on my shoulders—
I kept from you the moment, a month before, I had cradled

a student in my arms because the year had mugged her and left her bruised.
And so you couldn’t know that the smell of dust from rotting

volumes of Gertrude Stein replaced the stench of the toilets
my teenage hands scrubbed in other people’s homes

because government programs for us kids at risk, risked us.
I did not tell you because you were right in noticing

every brown face in that store name-tagged, your beautiful
feet pedicured into acceptance. I want to tell you, now,

never to read this poem aloud in your home as Esperanza,
your maid, listens at the sink. Never read it, because the words

will sift through your ears and fall into the forgotten spaces
between your ribs. They will rattle in your gut. They will circle

the chasms within your shins and fall to the hollow of each smooth
foot, just near the arch, lost to any hope of hearing. And Esperanza

does not need to hear them, not from your lips, because she
can still take her own name home at night, lotion her knees,

peel an orange into the distance measured between
the two doorways of her apartment, and love the sharp scent,

love how it becomes her life, like the words of this poem, and how,
for a few hours, the citrus oil hanging in the air washes you away.

Class and gender rear their head, but there is always an element of beauty in all of Kocher’s work. Even in anger above, the images never portray a world with much rot or waste or decay. The world that Kocher inhabits is the world where beauty affirms life. That instinct to swerve from squalor is admirable, and it has me asking myself what my obligation to portray beauty in the world is. The portrayal of beauty is an old trope, at least as old as the first prehistoric make-up kit, but it is redemptive. Beauty fixes our gaze and lets us wander barefoot without a care for who admonishes us. I felt this same kind of enjoyment in reading One Girl Babylon as I cared less and less about the kind of book I was reading (and the kind of book I should be reading). A fulfilling robust flavor cooks on every page, amid every “lurch” and through all the “lushness.”

She’s a star which we would all do well to follow.