The Changing Shape: Collaborative Reviews of Chax Press Books
* Slightly Left of Thinking: Poems, Texts & Post-Cognitions (2008) by Steve McCaffery, reviewed by Susan Scarlata
* Implexures (2008) by Karen Mac Cormack, reviewed by Andrea Rexilius
* Sound Remains (2008) by John Tritica, reviewed by Jen Tynes
* War Dolly (2008) by Elizabeth Treadwell, reviewed by Susan Scarlata
* A Message Back and Other Furors (2008) by Leonard Schwartz, reviewed by Anne Heide
In an interview in the Winter 07/08 issue of Rain Taxi, Steve McCaffery remarks, “The possible cross-pollination of a present to a past fascinates me, that both can be chiasmically propensitive with the present able to contemporize the past and the past historicize the present.” This is an apt starting place from which to consider McCaffery’s Slightly Left Of Thinking: Poems, Texts & Post-Cognitions published this year by Chax Press. McCaffery’s sub-title provides a prescriptive means for reading this anti-prescriptive collection –each page in this book can indeed be seen as poem, text or “post-cognition.” McCaffery’s statement above articulates much of what the writings in this book enact.
Karen Mac Cormack's Implexures opens with this epigraph by Bryher, “Time tangled; it never ran in a straight scythe cut, as they pretended in the moralities, but lay in loops, like the grass at haying time when the conies scampered for safety, and stem and flower were upside down together.” What follows is a text that is part autobiography, part biography, part diary, and part history laid out in a series of interlocked prose paragraphs.
Of J.B. Bryan’s abstract paintings, Suzanne Sbarge writes, “Although rooted in the landscape genre, these lyrical garden paintings depict active verbs of experience rather than landscape as scenery. His marks are tendrils –– reaching, in constant motion, twirling, twisting, tying, unraveling, connecting, and overlapping. Bryan calls their visual syntax ‘more about flowering than any particular flowers.’” Much the same might be said of John Tritica’s Sound Remains, the cover of which features one of Bryan’s paintings.
As the title suggests, Elizabeth Treadwell’s War Dolly interposes the vernacular and vocabulary of the feminine up against and into that of war and destruction. This text works on the level of literal wars (“the warriors troop in the desert”), and on a more figurative plane dealing with the disintegration of language (“The City of horror & all Gods little Favor Flavs”).
Leonard Schwartz’s A Message Back and Other Furors seems to be asking the imperative question—when faced with it, can one write anything not informed by atrocity? Can one’s writing not be informed by events that shape our lives’ historicity? Can we, as poets, excuse ourselves from politics simply because it fails to rest within our direct line of sight? Through repetition and estrangement of what become familiar phrases in the text, Schwartz proffers not so much a doubling or a field of opposites, but a very real failure of recognition. While approaching the subject of representation and obligation directly, Schwartz also calls into question our responsibility to see and respond to that which we may not claim.
In McCaffery’s S.L.O.T. , as the book is labeled in the bottom corner of each page, the text titled Naming starts with numerous quotes, and the last in this list is Micahel Surya stating, “A name bears a kind of flagrant sad evidence.” From there this poem continues on with a litany of names, often used as modifiers. From Aphra Ben to Whoopi Golberg and Tanya Harding to Edgar Allen Poe in its nine-pages—this text is a demonstration of the “sad evidence” of names.
In her Implexures Mac Cormack implicates us in her language. We are no longer just an audience or a reader, but part of the history she speaks of; we create it with her. She writes, “Pick a childhood to look at. This doesn't have to be your own, but if it is, the strangeness of certain events may shift unexpectedly.” Implexures is about how things shift unexpectedly, about how selves shift, how histories shift, how prose shifts into poem and poem into photograph or drawn image. This text is, like most hybrid texts, not simply a “border crosser” but a border walker. It faces its edges and points at them.
Rooted in the alliterative naming and enumerating of the everyday, Tritica’s poems portray language as the day’s primary material and focus. Landmarks serve as measure of movement, as another way of comprehending the “o’clock.” Objects present themselves in order to map space, to project a sense of self that is always shifting, always blurring its territory but blurring so consistently and rhythmically that a “real world” still appears beneath the wash: one with espressos and refrigerator motors and dirty cars are both object and music. A rhythm tattoos a space and a place. The title refers to that shifting groundedness: the remains are reliable even as the sound perpetuates: are they supporting or subverting one another? Where is knowledge seated?
Every bit of language is used in Treadwell’s War Dolly, and with variances in repeated words and phrases Treadwell’s words accrue meanings that reverberate with each re-appearance. “This asphalt river of pelts,” changes to, “antique river of pelts,” and this image of a flowing mass of animal skin and fur echoes as another way of saying, “those who have attacked species,” a label implicating everyone that Treadwell utilizes early on in the text . Throughout, words like jammies, dolly, and candy apples appear stripped of their trite connotations. In the footsteps of Chris Tysh’s Continuity Girl, War Dolly reclaims these cutesy words injecting them with power by mashing them up against other, dissimilar vocabularies, and letting them hold their ground.
The repetition that Schwartz engages throughout the text offers both estrangement and intimacy. A line that repeats (in various articulations) is “Familiar ground is foreign land,” and each time the line reappears, the reader incurs a sense of that unfamiliar familiarity—the intimacy that comes from meeting, twice, a strangeness. In this book, things are not only defamiliarized, but wrenched out of meaning and understanding, articulating the confusion and disorientation that surfaces in the face of atrocity: “every vertical surface either door/or daughter.”
Flipping through S.L.O.T. , , one immediately recognizes McCaffery’s wide scope; from concrete poems referencing empty boxes that bear the titles of famous artworks at the tops of pages in the Pictures In An Exhibition section, to the Ghost Poems that describe poems that never appear, McCaffery is left-of-post-cognition on every page. Within the varied sections collected into Slightly Left Of Thinking, McCaffery consistently cross-pollinates present and past, and anything else ripe for hybridizing, which here means everything.
In Implexures Mac Cormack is conducting a research experiment of the self. She uses typical research methods to juxtapose a personal history with quotations by a large variety of philosophers, historians, and writers. Her text asks the question, how can one research and know one's self at any given moment? There is only so much digging one can do, and that digging is fundamentally internal rather than external or of public domain. Mac Cormack transverses this by going around the private self, by surrounding the self with others, with parallels, with contradictions, with interruptions, with cycles. She makes memories and then lets them erode, retelling them through other voices, adding details, omitting things. The stories she tells are both not her own and her own. They belong to a particular attention, a grazing or gleaning of human experience. Her text is a cacophony of the whole body speaking at once.
When John Tritica borrows lines from Nathaniel Mackey, Rosmarie Waldrop, Italo Calvino, Clark Coolidge, and others, those bits of italicized language are like weights dropped into the water of the poems, around which the texts ripple and echo and place themselves, allowing themselves to adopt other musics and rhythms even as they keep drumming that same place: espressos, refrigerator motors, dirty cars. More about living than any particular livelihood, these poems sing the everyday until it becomes a single shivering note for which the ear must bend toward, blend toward: as Tritica writes, “the hum of the room improves me.”
Despite its forward moving, disparate post-modern disintegration, War Dolly travels also to roots of the feminine-as-first-want in semblances like, “this milky satellite need.” This phrase calls up the milky-way, lactation, dish TV, and weaning all at once. It is groupings such as this, with their multitude of references, which ground War Dolly beyond its language. There are often parallel trajectories of ancient and recent in this text where salves, altars, and pagan savior gods make appearances; Treadwell consistently juxtaposes her questioning of the possibilities in older traditions with what is most “now”. In Strawberry Girl Treadwell poses a series of startlingly pertinent questions. “Can you afford this house?” she asks, “can you afford this replica of this house?/ can you afford a copy of it? / can you afford this house?” she goes on. These of-the-moment questions are not left alone, but exist intertwined with and against the surroundings of War Dolly and its consistent shifts between varied registers of language. Directly after these questions are posed, the shift is to “save these turtle jammies for my kids,” which has the effect of bringing these lines from the universal economic questions to the local, domestic reality enclosed within these larger queries.
Each poem in A Message Back & Other Furors is not so much titled as separated by two slashes, “//” which informs both the violence of splitting the text into “poems” and the doubleness of speaking to and out of war. Beyond the linguistic and formal concerns of the text, Schwartz constructs stark moments in which he allows realness to surface from the unreal—that is, when he allows for the stark singularity of war to arrive without moderation:
Misfortune’s most holy site:
bleached by bomb light,
mantel and bone.
Reminiscent of survivors’ tanka written in response to Hiroshima, here Schwartz is able to lay bare the horrific cleanliness of war—that which fails to be difficult and can offer only one conclusion, only one interpretation. But this doesn’t mean that Schwartz accepts any singular definition. Certain poems in the text seem to arise from a wholly different mode of understanding, where “I uromastyx my steak with a vegetarians gusto for tofu…I iguana, you iguana, he, she, it iguanas,” as if meaning has become unhinged, and the task of representation is abandoned for the easy irony of a failure to mean. Contradiction is an integral part of this text, and our ability or failure to simultaneously believe in conflicting truths becomes the foremost concern of the book.
In the section Opposite Poems, the final text in Slightly Left Of Thinking, McCaffery writes, “…a singularity of shorelines the memory/of a sign of what’s to come. The hand that writes this is dying /and perhaps already /“the work that I was born to do is done,” ”. The quote within the quote here is noted as, “George Chapman’s words on completing his translations of Homer.” Thus, the present sense created with, “the hand that writes this is dying,” is contrasted with one of Western literature’s seminal translators, and indeed the present, “contemporizes the past as the past historicizes the present.” In Opposite Poems McCaffery writes, “We only experience how meanings are made /by pulling language apart/but try explaining that to their mothers.” And this presents another consistent thread in McCaffery’s work, whether working with phrasal “bodies” through the use of quotation marks and parentheses in the Quote Aside section, or in Eleven Distractions where McCaffery provides disparate definitions of colors and, “Two memories of an episode that never happened,” he is pulling language and its given meanings apart in every possible way. As Chax Press proclaims to publish writing that, “does not take things for granted,” McCaffery refuses to take the materiality of words for granted, and dissembles them so he and his readers can, “experience how meanings are made.”
Mac Cormack’s Implexures moves between thoughts in a visceral way. It attempts to be simultaneous, like memory. The line, “Perhaps this accounts for the attraction of watching a fire, the unexpected shifts as logs are consumed and sparks burst forth,” is one of many images that begin to define her inquiry into the shifting and folded nature of self, time, memory, and story. If you look at something long enough you see that what it is is unstable, uncertain, constantly changing form. What you grasp onto are those little leaps of light.
In John Tritica’s Sound Remains more than any particular room, the space created within these poems is positioned to hold attention.
The persistent language-based contrasts in War Dolly that concomitantly reference content (from ancient times to yesterday) return us to our most basic human needs and wants as well as the queries wrapped within them. By providing many varied lenses War Dolly forces us to see contemporary reality for what it is starting with the, “flat thin crust of civilization to walk on /like hard candy apple the earth.”
In this poem from A Message Back and Other Furors, this ability to believe in conflicting truths is repeatedly questioned:
If we are able to believe in contradictory things
it is because violence is accepted as a legitimate political instrument.
If we are unable to believe in contradictory things
this means we will not see what will come to pass without us.
The poem continues in this manner, often contradicting itself until we arrive at the poem’s conclusion: “The state of Contradiction is grave/The state of Non-Contradiction is grave./In any case, recurrence is a definite no-no.” This final statement seems indicative of the text as a whole. Although Schwartz is able to propose these questions with sincerity, he seems unable to let that sincerity sustain itself. Irony becomes an increasingly visible mode of “questioning” in the text to the point where we are unable to maintain any kind of certainty.
Susan Scarlata’s work can be found in recent issues of Sous Rature, Coconut, and Denver Quarterly. She lives in Denver and Kelly, Wyoming, and edits Lost Roads Publishers. Her chapbook, Lit Instant: Installation 1, is coming soon from PARCEL.
Jen Tynes lives in Denver, Colorado, and edits horse less press. She is the author or co-author of the following books and chapbooks: Heron/Girlfriend (Coconut Books, 2008), See Also Electric Light (Dancing Girl Press, 2007), The Ohio System (w/ Erika Howsare, Octopus Books, 2006), The End Of Rude Handles (Red Morning Press, 2005), and Found in Nature (horse less press, 2004).