speculate, to play a role/in making a nature scene.” But “speculation” begs the question: what is at risk in this venture?
It is difficult to read the book’s title and not rely upon the framework derived from its popular metonymy. However, the politics of The White House are noticeably peripheral. What is at stake in this text precedes a formal interrogation of the relationships between State(s) and governed bodies. The poet starts with baby steps, zeroing in on the space that separates one human from another, and attempts to negotiate those inevitable interventions of the imagination, the body’s desires and revulsions, and inherited ideological structures—language perhaps being the principal among them.
Craig tasks himself with being exhaustively self-aware—“Let me try to lay out what I think I understand/about my life” (“Street Dad”)—while also being mindful that “Life changes and the so-called truth changes with it” (“The White House”). He persists in his query and explains: “very often the truth of the new succeeds/in destroying the discoverer physically” (Stars As Eyes). What plays out in The White House is a poetics in flux, far less concerned with convincing the reader of methodical and theoretical maturity—the speaker ever doomed to be “the I who thought I knew who I was” (“Thin Red Line”)—than it is with measuring the effects of various modes of responsive reading [of poetry, places, histories, humans].
There are signs of Craig’s artistic forerunners, though he declares no abiding allegiance. For instance, there’s a glimpse of Riding, who had resigned to that failure to meet the world exactly by a moment, and a word, as the speaker struggles “to put broad, wide images/into small, tidy words” (“Street Dad”). Later, Pound’s instruction to use only words that might reveal—with no superfluous word, no adjective—echoes in the developing speaker’s insistence towards concrete language, as in “Volunteer”: “no/mystifications, no confusion to the eye, no/gadgetry clutter” (“Volunteer”). Numerous passages also evoke a Modernist preoccupation with the inner life:
It is in the head I am attentive.
In this admission and image from “High Park,” poetry occurs within a private space, “word by extraordinary word” divorced from the ordinary events taking place around and within the body.
Other lines address more directly the problem of social alienation. In proceeding and perpetuating this inward turn: “To be too thorough or specific about sensing possible let-downs/in a possible romance is to establish/a place for them in the subconscious mind”; and later: “Not to be too thorough or specific… but you told me it would be a wonderful experience” (“High Park”). The possibility of a meaningful connection diminishes, because “rather than listen to her I’m making my way and cannot explain/any other way” (“So Far So North”). Thus in tragicomedy Craig lays bare his own trials and errors, and those of his literary forebears.
These poems maintain that to speculate of others—I would also like to include the text in this category—is not only to risk discovery and exchange, but also to disregard their individual autonomies. It is to misread prior to reading. Or, having read, it is to have not read at all. The “great seated Buddha” of “High Park” intimates that self-discovery is on the line, as well as one’s capacity for any emotional or physical engagement at all: “I’m stuck near a river/I can feel the evidence of/but can’t imagine” (The Beach Patrol).
The White House is full of striking aphorisms that endeavor to redeem these human errors, as in “Chairs Missing”:
History isn’t clear. In other words
History is unclear for a number of reasons—those in power tend to write it, after all, and with the intent to preserve that power—but Craig may very well be pointing out the word itself. “History” comes from histor, or “wise man,” which is derived from a root meaning “to know,” or more literally, “to see.” In other words, a truly clear, or transparent, history simply preserves the narrative of human sympathy.
We come across an exemplary “wise teacher” several poems later, in the epigraph of “Rational Rational.” It’s Kurt Vonnegut by way of one of his protagonists, Mr. Rosewater, a rich man whose philanthropy signified a perverse irrationality before the judgment of capitalism. (To evoke even more the earlier poem, “chairs missing” is a British idiom for mental disturbance.) Rosewater, having seen the world and the harm humans could visit upon each other, has one urgent rule for the newly born: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” But in Craig’s poem, “Rational Rational,” a number of things interfere with relationships based solely on kindness, from the aloneness of “television all day long” and “interminable/conversations with your cats” to “international politics of debt,” “public housing,/university loans,” “children/who have no families, no food,/no education and no hope,” and “tomorrow.” The accretion of large and small anxieties seems unending—maybe it’s true that the “war cannot be won.” There, Herzog, thought Herzog, is the way it runs. But it can end, as World War II ended for Rosewater, whereafter his commitment to humankind[ness] began. In the beginning of “Rational Rational,” the utopian garden that the speaker remembers amidst the chaos seems nothing more than an illusion. However, at the end of the poem, it returns renewed and real, a “wonderful glow inside my being—”
the expanse of green grass and the shimmering
If this poetry comes from mental disturbance or utter irrationality, let us all hope to lose a bit of our minds to “the dimension behind the dizziness.” Various tributes the poet pays to past and waning rock artists—Harry Nilson, Fleetwood Mac, Mama Cass, Keith Moon, Wire, Ry Cooder, and so on—lead up to the final poem’s “one feeling—the desire/to get out of here” and explore the universe, or to be, as The Replacements’ song goes, the invisible man who can sing in a visible voice—to connect with everyone, and leave behind a “monolithic identity” for a namelessness that invites discovery.
Pringle told the audience of “an obsession with place-making and how it makes us,” concomitant [or co-morbid?] with an obsession with Manifest Destiny and sick-houses, “how buildings can be sick buildings.”In addition to its most-prevalent connotation of anger, one might read “temper” with its sense of extreme change through force and alloy; and also with the sense of illness carried by its cognate “distemper.” Through wandering, the titular lovers contract, and become carriers of, a toxic, diseased ideology infecting the body politic. A central motif in the pattern of national expansion is the spread of social and biological cultures—language, religion, smallpox.
Selected sections of the text take the form of direct presidential address, although with certain syntactical elements are left blank, or indicated in terms of variables. In the first of these addresses, dated “Friday, January 20, 19____,” the text is an adaptation of George H. W. Bush’s 1989 inaugural address:
I have just frequented several words that our Primal Head,
Here the blanks and variability point to the mootness and mutability of the New Head taking power from the Preceding Head. The import of these words is that a peaceful transfer of power, between the two major parties, is proof of success.
Throughout the book, the language of illness and its sick-rooms is folded in with that of orderliness; the etiological force of the Great American Mythos, its “Continuity,” as that sought in triage, or feigned and prolonged emergency, makes it possible that “this place swallows places that used to / be a place. a place long before it was an acknowledged place.” The process of expansion doesn’t necessarily require, but certainly often entails, reassigning places through the application of new names, stripping older layers and with them their “messy” histories and meanings, and replacing them with a newer, cleaner sense of order. The “gentle neighborhood” with its “clean gutters” and “perfectly symmetrical single family / homes,” with its “green plastic easter basket grass” is just an extension of the antiseptic protocol of the orderly’s domain, and it “stretches synthetically” beneath “cottonball clouds in the sky.”
Attendant and dependent upon this order, this Temper is Felicity, who “THANK[S] YOU / FOR KEEPING IT DOWN. THE NOISE.” As in, thank you for keeping your mouth shut and stomaching all of this, the pill that will kill all trouble-lines, just the kind of peace and quiet the doctor ordered. Do you want to feel safe, the way that Felicity does? Try the Grey Room on for size. It exists in one of the houses on that manicured block, and is just the kind of room that Diana Moon Glampers would love, its mundanity an opportunity for vacant reflection, just the thing for a retiring Mr. and Mrs. Bergeron:
You notice that the room in which Felicity stands
This place that swallows places is the kind of place you can really get a lot of thinking un-done. Felicity says: “I have thought a lot about MEMORY. I think about MEMORY / that is not MEMORY and then I think about MEMORY that is MEMORY and then I decide not to REMEMBER so that I don’t / REMEMBER any MEMORY that is not MEMORY.” This kind of self-reflection, which could be similar to self-policing or self-censoring, is what leads to the immobility that follows terror(ism), the self-ceding of “dominion” to “the Head” at the cost of “the Rest’s impotence.” The legacy, the Continuity, of “OUR BODY” is to obviate the hard work of thinking through the costs-benefit analysis that pits material comfort against dis-ease: “TERROR HAS BEEN REPLACED WITH SEVERAL AGENCIES OF EASE.” And Felicity at least, is seeking ease or isn’t: forgetting to remember as defense, as safety.
The “exclusive or” suggests a necessary choice, such as that between security and liberty (per Franklin, that Slightly Lesser Primal Head, to coin a phrase), but the suggestion of the book’s title is that, as pringle succeeds in reminding, there are ways to avoid making the hard choice one way or the other. To be tempered, it turns out, is to be happy, untroubled, pacified: “THAT WHICH KEEPS US SAFE KEEPS US FREE” (79). What a Romantic, what a Beautiful, what an Easy marriage it will be has been.
CONFESSIONS OF A JANUS HEAD: EILEEN MYLES’S SNOWFLAKE / DIFFERENT STREETS
(collected in Snowflake) and “newer poems” (collected in different streets) interact with each other to inhabit a single body. One might not immediately consider the psyche of Janus when we come across the god in ancient Latin poetry; but what would the door[wo]man’s one face say to the other on any given night on the job? Perhaps: “when you changed/your mind I thought/you had taken mine/into account.” Perhaps: “A system/isn’t so much closed/as sinister/no I mean conceptual.”
Myles makes no overt reference to Roman mythology; but here we have a book with “two fronts,” one that enters into the public sphere and another that enters the private. Snowflake is full of cross-country back and forth, between East (New York City) and West (San Diego, Los Angeles); its speaker is absorbed in the external world of fleeting people and places—and “it’s wide/out there”—as a blur in a passing car to the rest of the world. Such a transitional existence has become commonplace as we reach for our digital gadgets to keep us “in touch,” at the sacrifice of more tangible connections:
Whether we are granted or denied particular experiences, however, becomes less a source of crisis when we come to depend on these technologies: “what’s not technology/what’s not seeing.” We could trace the meaning of “technology” and find in its derivation the study of art and craft. What’s not integral to the poet’s devotion to experience? There exists the constant desire to fully take in one’s surroundings—to “turn the outside of my/car into a camera”—and to digest and immortalize the space and moment in which things happen around oneself:
I want it to be as open as I am
Although the speaker is more stationary in different streets—surrounded by a familiar locality, personal belongings, a cat named “Marco Polo” staring “into the/dead end/of the apartment,” and a lover whose presence varies (sometimes she is a poem), it would be difficult to argue that the pages of this second collection are any more (or less) introspective or intimate than those in Snowflake. These poems differ in that there seems to be less of an inclination to “be the thing/that holds it all”; instead, things are recalled from the past, with an impulse to release it all into the world:
I just have
different streets is more aware of its leaps through time while Snowflake is more aware of its movement through space. No matter when the speaker is, physically or mentally, her various experiences are compressed into the present moment of each poem. The poem itself is “a strong day/that can withstand change,” not because it is “enormous” like history, but because it “is so subtle” and can provide the “tiny details” of one’s gradual transformation. One wonders what space there might be left in the shared brain of Janus to contemplate the present, when his backward and forward gazes are so focused, but the synonymous acts of being and becoming are as dependent on memory as they are on aspiration:
[…] If I
Political and environmental concerns find their venue in Snowflake. During times of war, the Gates of Janus before the Roman Forum remained open. As a result of Rome’s efforts to expand imperial control, the gates were rarely ever closed. Not much has changed since then, as we are still “not/the kindest/of mammals”; if anything we are worse, “with our fucking/tar & our bombs,” with our oil consumption “like we’re driving on our own limited past.” The speaker does not exclude herself, because she cannot. Janus never moved from his post at the door because he understood the world according to past mistakes and premonitions. Should Janus even blink in an effort to physically intervene, he might forget, or fall shortsighted; should the poet do so, the very poem on the page might not have been written. This is a common source of anxiety for poets: to “romanticize this thing/that’s destroying us,” in an effort to bring it to others’ attention.
One might think different streets might offer the sanctuary of closed doors, but opens with the speaker’s own self-directed warning to “Worry about yourself,/Eileen.” The “agony of being human” takes over as the collective body becomes synonymous to the victimized nature of Snowflake, tortured by loneliness and longing, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and suicide. “The new poems/are poems of/healing,” she writes in different streets, “But first I’ll/be funny”—an unexpected punch line, as if to say humor was not a healing agent in these poems.
Although her presentation is novel, the book’s dualism shouldn’t strike us as unfamiliar. It’s an innately human one we inhabit daily, as present impressions merge with memories and ambitions to produce a continually revised sense of self. Myles’ book should instead strike us for its embodiment of beginnings, endings, and transitions in various outfits—how it is to simply be between and with[in] residences, institutions, relationships, obsessions, seasons, technologies, pets, etc.—here, from the unique vantage of Eileen:
There’s no female
can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave”), and more than a hint of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” hums its way into Springer’s second collection. Though Springer’s poems are haunted with longing for an American South where lunch ladies “serve fried okra & jambalaya” and “we learn to sew a pleat & stew a coon in Home Ec,” they’re also ambivalent in their love, acknowledging the violence that lurks and lingers in this beloved place.
Throughout the collection, Springer’s titles show a fondness for folk phrasings, and the poems spin those pointed expressions into stories that unravel the commingled love of place and the knowledge of this place’s violence. As Springer suggests in “What We Call This Frog Hunting,” emergence into adolescence in the midst of this world is both tender and brutal. Girls who practice “kissing / on each other—shy as spotted fawns” also “break the backs of frogs against a stone.” Even desire is marred by the bruises that surface around its edges, as in “Face That Could Pull a Stump,” in which a lover “strung me with / a necklace of hickeys so I / was bound to the moment // by its unspent bullets.”
Though Springer suggests there’s a “happiness” in this life that’s home to “front yard chickens, cockfight // Wednesday, Dixie Dandy Grocery sells catfish bloodbait, bright orange hats, gas, bullets,” she also exposes curiosity about those who flee this place. In “You Want Fair? The Fair Comes in the Fall,” Springer writes of a young man, Oscar Milby, who after a cruel rite of passage becomes “Sissy— / the livestock synonym for the human animal // who bites & kicks his way out of a herd of blue-ribboned show goats / to wander into the alien forest.” While the narrator doesn’t long to follow Milby, whose departure leaves him “erased” from the history of the place, the speaker wonders what became of him and offers no easy excuse for the frightening initiations that “back then were the fashion—much as every boy / wore the same military flattop & block letterman’s jacket.”
Just as Springer’s poems work through the struggle of how to love the Mississippi, the “river who / could carry a cypress three thousand miles / on its back & still not ache,” but which also carried people to their lives as slaves, the form of the poems in the collection also suggest tensions between admiration and a broader, more complicated experience of place. In “You Can’t Tell Nobody Nothing Who Ain’t Never Been Nowhere,” two columns suggest the distance between ignorance and hard-won wisdom, as the poem becomes a catalog of all the lessons one learns only through the brutality of experience:
When first learning to peel beets, it feels right to cut--
But you have to see for yourself.
In unripe persimmons
This tension between ignorance and experience surfaces in a different form in the most haunting poem in the book, “Hindsight’s Ballad: I’d Go Back & Fix Me, If I Was My Own Daughter.” Through three of the poem’s four sections, each stanza runs and rushes for two long lines, then offers an abruptly short third, as if trying to hold back the unfolding narrative, the speaker wanting to protect her younger self:
your paper money falling by the barstool. Your snowy egret breasts. Your limbs akimbo
In conjuring the aftermath of such violence, Springer sings murderous hymns. The music of the poems, its rhymes and half-rhymes, propel the reader even through the grimmest images, such as when the speaker of “Hindsight’s Ballad” imagines vengeance: “Maybe you could stick a meat hook / through the solar plexus of man number six / & lift his body to the trees till his blood drains / & he becomes the carrion special stripped by / birds to skeletal remains?” Indeed, music is the way through the terror, and the poem ends with a call back to the speaker’s sixteen-year-old self—not to keep her out of the bar, away from the men who would rape her, but with the belief that “if I can get you to put your viola in its crushed velvet case, proper, instead of being / so careless—I can save you. // That if I cannot go back & save you— / Music can.”
Springer shows time and again that this music is an inheritance, the murder ballad that dwells in “the dark county of the heart,” and her poems hold the tension of wanting “to erase the ancient, violent beauty / in the devil of not loving what we love.”
many ways a life can be divided, how many ways the attention can bifurcate, how over time people and places and practices fade as new drags on preference take hold, remoras (Roombas?) that add to the clutter instead of cleaning up.
There is a lot of accumulation as memory, and memory as tabulation, in these poems. “Family Math” begins:
I am more than half the age of my father,
The poem is full of these constantly shifting calculations. When the speaker says, a few stanzas on, “I can’t remember when I stopped counting // on my fingers,” the joke is that the counting continues. It’s just that the hands at some point got too full and busy, with marriage, teaching, children, friends, books, and wars (“some are very old”), to do that kind of work anymore: “More to busy me, more to figure and record. / More to have. More to let go.”
Many of these poems, in their counting, imply lists, but others explicitly take the list form itself, numbered and all. The “to-do” stationery evident in the poems summarized above stand in as the quotidian bookmarks and demarcations that help keep track of life: what has happened, what is happening, what might happen next. In order to grasp the way Parker lightens such heavy loads, consider the very first of the list poems. The title, “Eighteen Ways to Consider a Neighbor Whose Holiday Lights Stay Up All Year,” is a pretty clear riff on a well-known Stevens poem, but Parker’s poem is more “Wally” than Wallace, something not conjured up in a mind of ice, but one of confetti:
1. He’s hopeful.
The title, alluding as it does to an abstract meditation on blackbirds, may call to mind the imperceptible motion of a tiny thing in a big swirling blizzard, but the lines themselves reveal a more overtly human comment on existence. Specifically, the existence of an ostensibly suburban homeowner, who has neighbors with whom to compromise (or contend). There’s humor in Stevens, but Parker’s is a different type of funny-bone, one that is likelier to deliver one-liners than homilies. And this is perhaps the function of bathos: to produce a sense of the ridiculous by making an about-face from highfalutin’ to pullin’ faces.
That Parker jokes around and revels in levity is no obstacle to his letting heavy be heavy. An exemplar of this type is “Eight Unfinished Elegies,” a list of somber observations at the bedside of the speaker’s dying mother:
1. To the bird outside the hospital window, I have lost my mother dying.
Simple statements, mostly declarative, all of which accumulate so the mother’s body becomes a transparency that the son throws himself upon, a void that is impossible to enter or leave. She is both the bird and the window it dies flying into, flown through and beyond life support, a big long life grown suddenly still, suddenly small. Each piece is necessary, the tone is consistent, and the final image perfect in its encapsulation of the relative weightlessness of a life after expiration.
So while I am not comparing the work of the two, I am saying that my desire for meaning feels a little manipulated and tortured just about now. And that’s a good thing. Let me explain.
Manipulation is also a form of channeling, of conveyance, it seems. In the Author’s Note at the beginning, after a jouncy bit of dissembling about the title, purpose, and content of the book, the reader will come to this admission:
Usually, a book is about something very particular.
The note lays down several key processes: iteration, revision, erasure, misspeak. Deformation as reformation. The act of reading, too, is a manipulation, and there is a lot of “scraping off” in this book. Whether it is the series of variants on the “man walks into a bar” formula, early in the book, or the sequence of letters to god toward the end of the book, there is a persistent clearing away by piling up, covering the last entry with the newest entry. The text observes, laments, revels in, and identifies with these processes of deformation as reformation:
You mean to say one thing, and you slip and speak a password, and the
The city, like the text, is many-edged, inwardly expanding, prismatic even, given all its shining epithets. “All words are names,” after all, and every naming reflects and distorts the names that crowd, that came before. This is history, or prophecy, and none of it settled:
City of augurs, city of oracles, city of interpretations in this sense,
city arousing no carpet’s harmonious pattern, city of divine origin,
controversy. City of similarities, come to the universe…. (27)
Weaving the reader in and out, from room to room and place to place, including an array of half-rhyme repetition and doubling of images, Dunbar works through a sometimes nightmarish scenery, some of it violent or at least malevolent, but also buoyed by a heroic sense of the possibility of regeneration. It’s never clear whether this is a progress toward something, a final draft or perfect rendering, or an interminable but unavoidable processing of possible outcomes, synapses firing in ways they had previously not:
As you die, your soul will scatter from your mouth like confetti.
It would be nice if the confetti would subdivide into hundreds of small,
bulbous confetti eggs.
And if each egg would pop, and profess a rain of confetti all its own, like
signals igniting the bush of undiscovered neurons.
It would be nice for this to be especially convenient. (35)
…but there are clues, from the beginning of the book, that this division, this multiplicity, is utterly unsurprising:
A large part of the appeal of snowflakes in
popular culture is their proposed uniqueness
on a molecular level, a uniqueness that every
organic and non-organic structure shares by
the exact same criteria. (5)
In other words: settle down – it’s just a unique snowflake. And what isn’t?
If George Steiner is right that “to decipher is to understand” and “to hear significance is to translate,” then listen for significance, and don’t worry so much if you understand. There may be nothing new under the sun, but in this book everything is vague and uncertain at first, like listening to a partially-known language; everything an as-yet undeciphered significance. (Dunbar is transmitting a method as much as any meaning; and the method changes meaning.) Again – for what it’s worth – William Logan: “most poets who give us meaning don’t know what they’re talking about.” So sit back, relax, and enjoy the honest-to-goodness manipulation:
And someone’s likely to not understand at first; when they do understand am I
then communicating honestly? (64)
One of the first poets Shapiro brings to mind is Dickinson, herself no stranger to mathematical theories and methods. Dickinson, if not incorporating the technical vocabulary or acting out some operation, often performed some count or measurement as part of her inquiry of the world and her attempt to express what might transcend that. “I spend all day trying to chart/the equation of my feelings,” writes Shapiro, “but I didn’t get/that far in math.” In the work of both poets we come across an enduring contradiction: the utter inadequacy of the most precise system we have to characterize the abstract. “In broken mathematics,” wrote Dickinson, “We estimate our prize,/Vast, in its fading ratio,/To our penurious eyes!”
The word “mathematics” stems from the Greek mathema, “what one learns.” The beauty of Easy Math is that it grapples with uncertainty by engaging with what is known. With smart turns of word, line, and context, Shapiro picks apart contemporary axioms, personae, and events to enact their underlying comedy and tragedy, so reflecting the brilliant mess that is the human condition. Take for instance the opening lines of “They Promised Me a Thousand Years of Peace”:
The snow falls blank as a contract no one
How the rules of language construct the space in which we relate to each other and the world, and furthermore, how we relate within that space, are the bones and meat of these poems. Language can simplify as much as complicate any problem, and as the best poets often do, Shapiro challenges its rules by composing with a crystal clear syntax while maximizing the possibilities for meaning. “If we stand in a circle we reach a unity/that comes with the impersonal,” she quips in “How I Wrote a Belated Love Letter,” not without the same cunning of Dickinson’s “One and One—are One.” Shapiro is on a mission to expose the contradictions of what we take for granted as comforting notions, such as the geometry that we feel is so demonstrative of a unifying love. Yet with that geometry comes the reality of being any one of an endless number of uniform points on the circumference, with little to distinguish one as an individual. Easy Math is as much about the reconciliation of these contradictions.
In “Bent Syllogism,” deductive reasoning is misleading alongside “postmodern theories, signs and cosines.” The mathematics of absolute truths and sound logic—its perfection as consoling as it is stifling—butts heads with a mathematics of multiple interpretations and enigmatic expressions. However, such examples as “pi, infinity, the artist formerly known as/the artist formerly known as Prince” almost approach meaninglessness: “I take the symbol out of my pocket, brush it off/and send it on its way.” Who’s to say which prospective end is the more overwhelming? It’s not the “end” Shapiro is after, and we can breathe a sigh of relief as the date for the apocalypse reset yet again. Regardless of our preferred math camp, philosophy of language, etc., what one learns in probing the problem—in this case, a contradictory culture of listlessness, complacency, and unstable identity—takes precedence over some coveted tell-all answer:
The way I feel about mathematics bespeaks a love
With the same supplication as the poet’s own in the final line of “Bent Syllogism”—“Please teach me.”—we step into a collection whose author’s crowning achievement is to write of twenty-first century malaise and make us feel like we’ve been left unsupervised in a regenerative playground. It’s with the same unadulterated glee that we enter into Easy Math as when we first heard the elementary joke that begins, “Why is six afraid of seven?” Sure, we were disenchanted with the punch line before we hit double digits. But look at what it says about humanity, the poet seems to hint incessantly. Shapiro manages to re-enchant by reacquainting us with that sincere wit and curiosity, coaxing us to know the world (but know it slant):
When I bite into the apple, it tastes like an apple.
CUNT NORTON BY DODIE BELLAMY
by Jacob A. Bennett
Whitman writes that amid all the foolishness, the faithlessness, and the self-reproach of human living, the “good” of life is “that you are here–that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Not that Dodie Bellamy’s book Cunt Norton (Les Figues, 2013) asks or needs permission, but it makes good on the proposal. There are two things happening in this book, over and over: approximation of the styles of canonized authors, and the interjection of a polyvocality which proclaims, in so many ways, “No ideas but in juice.” (“Cunt Williams”) This is the cunt-up method. It is parody and triumph through co-option, a cutting through the opacity of romantic symbols, rendering explicitly a series of hyper-repetitive sexual fantasies. Picking from the 1975 Norton Anthology of Poetry, Bellamy includes Emily Dickinson among her revisions, but all other cunted-up authors are male. There is the obsessive, unimpeded, single-minded imposition of the cock, “dark with its blood,” which prescribes a role for and presumes control of the cunt.
There is a tone of revelry though, and never lamentation, as the lines between exploiter and exploited – painter and paintbrush, paint and canvas – grow a little soggier in every poem:
Once I had no mouth nor any paint; my canvas was unpeopled until you, my flatterer, held me inside like a Voodoo doll. “Try using your brush as a means to an end,” said your pussy, a wet one. (“Cunt Ashbery”)
Which is not to say the voices of the poems are male. They have cocks and cunts and breasts, and use them all. Even in submission they are aggressive. The voices in these poems, with their unwavering devotion to the smashing of gorged pudenda and their seepages, is an unflinching affirmation of the roles of all bodies in the grasp of (mostly masculine) privilege, as asserted by that infamous gaze. Here is a voice asserting itself, while rapturously derailing:
[in] Chinatown, pink when we come, leaving our
Some poems seem a dialog back and forth without exposition to show the shift between speakers, genders, identities – their genitalia does that for them, cock to clit and back:
My clit stands still and dances–it looks
If the pages of the book were its lovers, they would be stuck together, separable only by tearing one subjectivity from another: “Our skins together swim. What are we?” (“Cunt Frost”) Perhaps, the answer seems to be, we are nothing but juice. Juice is in the body, and juice is on the mind. Whatever the answer, it’s soaking wet. One of the great achievements of this book is that it takes the genteel circumlocution of those mostly male bards and dives right into the deep end of what their ardency means. As a kind of epilogue, after the final poem of the collection, there is just one line, italicized, a summary: “You’ve wet everything we’ve touched tonight.” There is no need or time, in the urgent world of Cunt Norton, for anything so brittle and prudish as what rolls from the tongues of an obsolescent, self-satisfied patriarchy. And, given all the friction of these poems, it’s a good thing, too.
The prospect of this journey is daunting—not in the manner of a sprawling epic, but in the sustained focus and commitment that is required of the reader—though the extent of this commitment is not immediately apparent. For the book begins not in a funk, but rather an extended exclamation of deep appreciation for the world, its people, its objects, its games. Each stanza in “Telling You I Love You” functions as a sentence that begins with “I love” or a variant thereof. The capital-S Sentence becomes a means for Landman to cover his bases (pun intended, there are baseball references throughout the book), aiming for some sort of thoroughness or completeness as he acknowledges both the ups and downs of intense feeling.
Landman’s technique here is deceptively smooth. His short lines roll through their line breaks, building intense momentum as he emotes straight onto the page. The poem is not a consciousness stream; it’s closer to an improvised thank-you address at an awards ceremony in his head where he forgot his notes and simply attempted to express gratitude for everything he could think of. In Landman’s case that includes the song the wind makes, constellations, whiskey, baseball, the phrase “this evening,” getting “practically killed by desire.” It’s fitting that he even finds love in unexpected, seemingly unlovable places such as a suburban office park, which as it turns out has a particular charm at dusk.
“Telling You I Love You” ends with Landman noting how “life is weird/ lonely and connected,” so the tonal shift into “Confidence” delivers a jolt. The opening movement ends, the screen goes blank, and then the next movement begins. Unlike the opener, “Confidence” begins like a memoir, with Landman expressing regret while looking back on “the previous years of my life/ gone and mostly wasted.” It’s unclear who, but “someone is dying,” he writes, “everyone dies/ but this one person/ is overwhelming.” Telling is the suddenly rockier enjambment. Gone is the fastidious attention to the poem’s natural momentum; here his line breaks begin to defy the poem’s smooth flow, causing the reader to trip and stumble.
The book’s ironic title points towards the void Landman circles: confidence has dissipated, beyond just a crush of self-worth, but confidence that those things for which he showed such gratitude won’t simply disappear. “I can’t make myself/ care any more,” he writes, “you need to keep/ the body alive/ while the body is/ dying all the time.” Where in the first poem the quotidian is a source of small wonder, here it becomes a dim banality, a grim landscape where little happens other than some harsh introspection: “Here we are/ sunset in Boonville/ Indiana things just/ getting good/ in my imagination/ it’s pretty/ dire.” It’s an onslaught of downers peppered with novel insights—“buy yourself/ a world if you want/ to have shitloads/ of unfixable problems.” This is about as close to levity as Landman comes in this entire section. Driving through southern Indiana will do this to a person.
Though the enjambment in this poem has largely shifted from the effortless flow of the first, the anxious stumbles create strange, wonderful convolutions (a mode that continues in the third poem): “dreamy dreams I can’t tell you/ what I believe/ in incommunicable revelation.” But Landman’s primary structure remains intact, with each stanza functioning as a run-on sentence only somewhat prone to tangents. Also, punctuation is nearly absent; there are a few scattered, curiosity-inducing commas and one solitary period in the entire book. The latter arrives in the midst of a visit to a nursing home, ending the phrase “Calling into the earth.” It’s left unclear who exactly is in hospice, but the void of loss becomes more than an abstraction or existential dread. There is still, however, the looming sense that Landman misses a lover as well as this family member who has died: “I had a chance/ and missed it now/ I’m okay though when/ I want to love you/ otherwise I shut up in here/ more of the world/ and missed and/ and and missed.”
Amid the pervasive gloom, the unabiding sadness has almost become an end in itself. But as “Confidence” ends and “Breakwater” opens, Landman’s energy and drive return. There are still stumbles into self-doubt, but “there’s all this/ hope” and he has been spiritually, emotionally, physically recharged. The tone turns more conversational, Landman engaging the presence of the reader instead of ruminating into the ether. Glimpses of wonderment return and at those moments he becomes almost child-like. He has dragged you, reader, so far down with him that it doesn’t become clear how deep until halfway through this final section. And “when it is over/ you will look back on/ and wonder how you survived.”
It’s difficult to find a moment of explicit redemption in “Breakwater,” it’s more relief tinged with resignation. The reader will recognize an acknowledgement of the finality of death in the ongoingness of mourning, even if it is nearly impossible to fully accept—wanting “to wheel around/ and see you again.” The poem’s close is bittersweet instead of bleak, hopeful even as darkness lingers. There are many places where the work almost pushes the reader towards psychoanalyzing the poet—rather than simply grappling with the poems—but Landman manages to press that boundary while never crossing it. Patience is required, but rewarded; the poems open up at each confluence of rhythm and insight. Moreover, one feels each sting and scrape and instant of connection. There will be many moments in the core of book where it seems easy to put it down and walk away, but what happens when you don’t try to make it out the other side?