when you awake. Diane Ward. Portable Press: 2006. $6.
Physical Kind. John Coletti. Portable Press with Boku Books: 2005. $6.
Portable Press books look and feel like those old issues of Kayak which inspired my first aspirations as a poetry editor. Saddle stapled and simply designed, Portable Press, like Kayak, shows as deep of a love for the work inside as a small run press can deliver through appearances. Once the reader gets into the pages, though, Brenda Iijima’s ear as editor shows exactly the secondary consideration packaging requires for auricular presentations.
“when you awake”: Diane Ward’s “survival pander”
Ward refuses the narrative as a constraint. As time threatens to extinguish the mind, the mind requires a method of immediate knowing through which to understand experience. Many innovative poets share this ontological project, notably G.C. Waldrep in The Goldbeater’s Skin and Eleni Sikelainos in The California Poem. However, to call Ward, or poets of similar instincts, lyrical is not accurate, as the movement through her poems closely resembles narrative. Time passes almost media res: “well, it’s not just passion fading now. watch the image, the long line of ourselves, wait.” Ward does not refute the narrative, but rather she refutes the narrative’s authority to impose chronology upon perceptions and to dictate the validity of them. In the image of an “endless chain,” time can be conceived of in its entirety. Time, too, comes from an unknown source (“whose roadside has grown this?”). The mind conscious of time as an image, thereby understanding it almost as a thing, is somewhat freed from time as a constraint on our experiences.
Comprehension results from looking outward, not from looking at a progression through time: “no vocabulary to modify the ache for the present and no direction that is not facing the field that is not us, no presence. the distance between myself and the screen has no reference point.” Neither narrative nor landscape are referential.
Only the mind can reference the mind, and, thus, the mind can exist outside of the narrative: “the roadside won’t matter, the thicket will flag away. he dropped everything and ran, wilting the narrative.” What authority can a narrative have if when the characters are capable of existing outside it? Ward declares a coming-out-of time:
after the worst has passed, its name forms on daffy-duck lips. honestly, harmlessness grows out of control in wet places in every amplified declaration. and if i am an ashen space, and if the echo of our dissonance has been rung, and if it’s damaged time that cradles what can’t be.
The if statements have no consequent then; immediate possibility, even in doubt, has more validity concerning our experiences than sequential chains, which are endless and therefore unlike us: “an enormous minute pointed to nothing outside itself and what it revered: to bring it into the clear world, place it above, to illustrate it, survive. and eventually to survive itself.” What’s certain about us is the surrounding uncertainty.
However, with uncertainty as the mind’s only mirror, the self, too, must be broken down:
“yes, that was an obstacle: a picture, a noun, but that’s not important now. my noise isn’t important. we’re not trying to be quiet here movement concentrated and unidirectional, folding inward so tension increases, won’t stay put.”
Ward comes to a weird cosmology, Keatsian in its approach to objects, Emersonian (early essays) in its sentiment, and strangely echoing both Pavlov and Predestination: “I’m embracing the time/ashen-space continuum when I, as ashen-space, say all the choices I, mistaking myself for a dissonant object, didn’t make have still existed all along.” More oddly than the combination of associations, Ward reveals her “mistaking” and the subsequent realization (despite her negative capability, transcendental humility, and quirky sense of uncontrollable destiny) that she “still existed all along.”
The breakdown to experience free of constraints comes down, now, to a needed break with poetry, the vehicle of her breaking down of constraints. Here Ward relies on poetry that asserts an existence outside of poetry: “the background became filled with her, though it was empty and she was absent. a trace occupied what had been called ‘hearing’. if it had been in poetry, it was not anymore.” The gesture is entirely ironic, and leaves us with the problem of whether constraints on experience can be broken down outside of poetry. Ward does a fine job of deconstructing her original aims, though: “to say it could all be taken in, all that panoramic distortion, that was a lie. our teeth are parting in advance of the central light source. that feeling? that’s the feeling you have when you know you should stop, but the barrier’s indeterminate.” We’re left with some golden language (“immortals dance on incendiary tail fins” and “all these facts crammed into a half-step, survival pander”) but no ontological questions answered. We get a voice of resistance that will not give up on our exercises in futility, an example of courage that needs no hope.
No Code and Not Nonsense: “embrace your dash” in John Coletti’s Physical Kind
John Coletti has fun in his poems but puts no one on. Much of the humor we find in today’s poetry is smug, contrived, insular, or just not funny at all. Coletti’s poems do not arrive at funniness when Coletti, at an appropriate moment, decides, “okay, now, it’s time for a laugh,” because Coletti finds humor constantly in the world, in himself, and particularly in the act of writing poetry, which offers among myriad emotions the underused option of joy. And why in hell shouldn’t poetry be fun and interesting? Stevens’ declaration that an oyster playing the accordion is invention, not imagination, is a valid strike against poets who present surreal imagery as if it carried exact meaning, or a definite anti-meaning. The monkeys and donkeys that have populated poems since the seventies, the recent explosion of dead animal poem satirists, the return of Whitman’s virile “I” with only a hint of sarcasm, are signs of the emergence of a serious irony, a not-yet-indoctrinated philosophy asserting that humor means the way the fox trot and electric glide mean.
Coletti begins poems cleverly (“How did Robin/Get around in those elf shoes”), anecdotally (“Coach used to say/Hey, we won the French toast/We won sleep in your eyes/We’d never wear bear suits”), with allegory (“Broad prose prairies”), with imagery (“The fire-swallower’s tricycle”), or with a music-struck idea (“Out getting wasted wells up it does”). However, hat attracts me to these poems, what makes them ecstatically lovable and never infuriating, despite their apparent resistance to comprehensibility, is Coletti’s refusal to get suckered into his own poems. He takes the poems point of conception and thwarts it, as in “ A New Round of Touché”:
How did Robin
Get around in those elf shoes
Life is not this
Bullshit art scene
The flat, literal statement that defies the clever opening is livened by the ironic tone of anger, yet the self-destructive declaration is not a ploy to manipulate us into the poet’s agenda (because Coletti’s agenda is to have none, but without trying too hard to not have one).
In “A New Round of Touché” Coletti continues to avoid the poem’s predictable directions by offering an incongruent image (“Dollop of Miller foam”), and then by revealing a subjective perspective (“Blue hair layaway”). The poem could easily slip into a run of images and language play and maybe survive, but that would be no fun for Coletti, who continues the sequence of images by inserting himself and the narrative: “Phlegm slipping I swallow/Sad eyes collapsed.” Of course, the narrative won’t hang around for long. A gorgeous and hilariously delivered allusion interrupts: “Satyr’s strung out flowers.” Still, the poem retains a crystalline structure, which Coletti continues to smash for forty more lines. A new and more startling whole configures, an amalgamation of pop culture references, apostrophes from the lovelorn, and bits of common speech, before halting at “70s 80s 90s dancing,” the perfect end to a wild Tom Waits-type-of-night on Coletti town.
Coletti is neither merely zany nor ultimately meaningful in “Everyone I Want to Be”:
Fresh melt rubber burns circulates air
Chicken skin fighting for a pass at the sky
I keep keeps moving up additive life
Crystal grains surround in some evident mourning.
Neither the social value nor linguistic play will win out, but both aspects of the poem call for a place, which Coletti provides beautifully, while parting drastically from the previous lines: “Possums bent neatly preaching old chestnuts/L.A. manic painted painful egg blue.” Of course, in a Coletti poem such intimacy must be ruined as quickly as possible, so Coletti violates Stevens’ axiom in a way that nearly mocks the previous two lines: “Choir boys grilling steak in my/Emotions snapping bikinis.” However, his is just the type of interior awareness Stevens came upon in his early poems, an internal world based in but not entirely separate or distinguished from reality.
“As of Late,” a poem nearer to the overt expression of short form poets Joseph Massey, Anselm Berrigan, and Stacy Szymaszek, Coletti messes with a more conventional contraption, but the sputtering engine revs heavenly:
early enough, here we are
squaring off at Victorian robins
each other with day work
The poem begins with a linear force that suggests a resolution as certain as that of a Hardy poem. Coletti retains the serious tone, though he alters the context: “gritty, noncommittal/stray alarm clocks.” In a move out of a nineteenth century anthology, Coletti reveals the narrative: “she’s a little weird and happy/leading me in her direction.” The “little weird,” were this my only experience with a Coletti poem, would seem precious, and if I hadn’t thought and even argued with myself over where Coletti is coming from, I’d think “little weird and happy” must be a put on. The final lines, rather than condescending to humor, understand where they must go: “head back eyes strainfully closed/enough to be perfect/motionless, missed.” It’s a flourish of everything Coletti does, made clear. I don’t know of any poet who has pulled off “strainfully” as at a necessary quirky moment of seriousness. In one improvised word he once makes sense of “a little weird and happy,” justifies “enough to be perfect,” and sets up the poetic, and rightfully poetic, “resolving music of “motionless, missed.”
Coletti’s poems are not flawless, and they evade a direct reading into their weaknesses, but without condescension or self-aggrandizement they welcome the reader to a new way of reading. His poems are instructive because they are intended not to show or tell, but to do. The poems are extremely elusive and will be frustrating, even infuriating, to those trying to break a code that is amiably not there. Also, the nonsensical language would make a redundant exercise of the book were there not a clear sensibility driving each poem. Somehow his breaking of stylistic entrapments always results in more than the act of breaking.
--Review by Matthew Henriksen