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Poetry Roundup

Pierre Martory, John Ashbery, trans., The Landscapist: Selected Poems

(Sheep Meadow Press, 2008)

Several pages into The Landscapist, a collection of poems by the relatively unknown French poet Pierre Martory (1920-1998) translated by John Ashbery, there is a snapshot of a young Ashbery, trench coat collar up, paper under arm, with Martory on a street corner. Both poets are smiling. With The Landscapist, a bond formed in Paris in the late 1950s continues on into the 21st century, even past the death of the poet whose works are now being brought to light.

A poet who can be serious without taking himself too seriously is always a plus. Here, Martory sets off a surrealistic carousal of the what’s-about-to-happen: “...The lost felucca ferries a skeleton/ to its grave. A disc feeds the sky./ In the hollows of geysers dolphins are taking/ advantage of their incognito to cry./ A pious hand is strangling the pity/ and slips it into the letterbox/ the perfumed sadness of silence.”

The title poem “The Landscapist” unfolds as an investigation into what it may or may not mean to describe: “The depth/ of closed eyes reveals the universe in its chasms./ On its surface, an illuminated meadow, matte bluish green,/ receives, like a rigid waterfall/ of vivifying water, rays of the true day:/ time’s flow, somewhat hard, solidified laser.” Here time is endlessly interpretable. Ideas themselves are as subject to the processes of growth and decay as are the phenomena they attempt to define: “time’s flow, solidified laser./ That must be cut up, broken, thrown back on itself...”; “Then/ abstracted from the dazzle/ a tree/ is traced.// It’s not an applied design, like the one that would have ended in a blade of grass/ harmonious in its bending under the weight of the light/ so similar in essence and yet incomparably/ unique next to other blades, painted with the same attention.” The freedom in the poetry is wildly logical, a “regulated disorder...” as Martory calls it. Indeed, “The tree eluded every concept.” “The Landscapist” provides a scene which is open to “all the possible fantasies, lakes, cliffs/ innumerable variety of verdure changing with the weather, which will have to be counted...” Each reading of this poem comes up with a different sum, subject to change.

Where is Martory in these poems? Certainly not just in the “I.” At one point he uses his name as a pun to convey the fact that Pierre is as much stone as it is the name of a man (the word “pierre,” the translator points out, is both the author’s name and the French word for “stone”). This pun, which allows two things to occupy the same place, actualizes a truth about identity: that it is a arbitrary, mutable currency.

Here is the end of “Chocolate Poem”: “Mauve with on the recto some verses of Verlaine Here are/ some vlowers, some vruits some vleaves and vranches/ Thethen thethen fear thethen thethen fear and then thethen thingum/ But seriously/ I was trying to find at the base of my cerebral convolutions/ the word poem/ and I always found chocolate.” Martory succeeds in rescuing words from the dullness of yet more poetry. He offers something much better; the chocolate itself.

Roger Van Voorhees

Roberto Bolaño, The Romantic Dogs

(New Directions, 2008)

Many of Roberto Bolaño’s poems have by now been translated into English and published in various American literary magazines, but with the rapid introduction of his novels, novellas and short story collections it’s been easy to overlook the fact that, for an author who considered himself primarily a poet, there have been no volumes available in English. Bolaño did publish much more fiction than poetry, in order to support himself and his family, but nearly everything he wrote was with a poet’s exuberance and desperation.

The Romantic Dogs collects poems written between 1980 (when Bolaño was 27) and 1998, and was first published in Barcelona in 2006. Themes of love and death are consistent throughout the book, but the tone vacillates between a dark romantic ache and youthful excitement. Without a fictional alter ego there is more naked emotion than is found in the dry wit of his prose. But as with the fiction, he excels here with elegiac character studies and capsules of friendship and romance. “La Francesca,” about a lover with a troubled past and a fear of growing old, is truly intense. The poet knows that their love won’t last long, but is assured by her that it will remain unforgettable. “A love brief as the sigh of a guillotined head,” she says to him, “brief like beauty…which is only visible to those who love.” It reads like an episode from 2007’s The Savage Detectives. Indeed, several poems involve scenes that would be retold and expanded for that novel. Dario Galicia, the young gay poet who is forced by his parents into a lobotomy; Lupe, the 17-year-old prostitute who loses her baby; and of course the adventures with Ulises Lima, identified here as the real-life Mario Santiago, Bolaño’s close friend. And then we have a suite of poems, beginning with “Los Detectives,” that read like preliminary notes to the novel. They also tread further into California-noir and the sci-fi imagery of Philip K. Dick. Most fun (and creepy) is the eight-episode “The Last Savage,” which re-imagines the notorious ’78 mondo film as a big-budget action movie, the poet as the leather–jacket-clad star.

With the publication of Bolaño’s latest novel to be translated, 2666, an argument has spread over whether his style is anti-literary. One accounts for his coarse prose by the will to depart from the Latin American literary giants who preceded him, as well as the shedding of idioms for the sake of an un-national identity, but much of the poetry holds a comparatively formal eloquence. And he wears his influences proudly, from the blasphemous, Baudelaire-esque indignation of “My Life in the Tubes of Survival,” to the mathematical metaphors of his hero Nicanor Parra in “The Last Love Song of Pedro J. Lastarria.” Also in the collection are a string of odd references to ancient Greece, in which the poet seems to conclude that beauty, rather than love, is eternal, and that poets can outlive history.

David Varno

Thomas Lux, God Particles

(Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

Not since Richard Brautigan have we had a poet more amusing than Thomas Lux who avows, “I want my audience to have fun.” He takes satirical swipes at piety and propriety in uncanny monologues. The sense of the speaker, front and center, never leaves, and that speaker is part crank, part sentimentalist and all wizard.

Shooting peacocks and teeing off with toads exemplify the author’s shock appeal. Bad poets should be murdered (metaphorically). “Invective” is an uproarious list of curses. “The Utopian Wars” rides an oxymoronic trope, as an “Amish raiding party attacks a Quaker/settlement at Muddy Crossing.” Lux allows his cockamamie scenarios to bloom. Logic unfurls from the fracas. Proving his ultimate benevolence, he reports that the Mennonites still “turn the other cheek.”

God makes several cameos. “Lordy, Lordy.” Despite Lux’s irrepressible irreverence, there is an underlying respect for the Almighty. “My god can rip the heart from your god.” “God forgive me.” In “Blue Vistas,” “God measures His doses” and delivers some gorgeous landscape that in turn makes for gorgeous poetry.

“Early Blur” is typically outlandish but sublime. The poet dramatically entreats Mary seven times in eleven lines. “Mary by the lake of wolverines.” Lux also entreats us to look at the “outline of something… and fill in the parts we don’t see with hope.” It’s hard not to grin… and then smile.

Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

Connie Voisine, Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream

(University of Chicago Press, 2008)

Hi there, lonely girl. These story-like poems throb as we tail the author through a dodgy landscape of adventure, despair and “brief glory.” Connie Voisine’s persona traverses life with roaring passion and relentless inquiry.

The first poems trace the transformation from a girl to a woman. Voisine’s narratives are studded with aperçus. “Fly” is a stunning metamorphosis told in breathlessly short lines a la Emily Dickinson.

Another poem, “Apart, Away” says a lot about where Voisine’s going and where she’s coming from. The poem is made up of slices of solitude between the rent check and a snow bank. Emptiness is pinned down to her man’s birthmark “in the shape of a ghost and the funnel we walk down each day.” How bleak is that?

This bleakness is countered by the character’s grit, the same grit she sees in the overarching stars. “Monotone in their beyondness” they are a “Synecdoche without referent. Smug cold grit.” They “stand for something like infinity.” The poet broaches the breech and returns, confessing, “I could not bear that scale.”

Infinity is beckoned again in the final poem, a road romp called “This is for the sliver of highway.” Ah, restless America and your endless “open road.” Voisine revels in the grand theme from Ohio to Nevada to Cheyenne, gliding in celebratory overdrive. “Here’s to gypsy movement… the infinity of living between.”

Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

Bob Holman, BOX

(Purgatory Pie Press, 2008)

The word is a token and the book is a token of the word being spoken. “And if it ain’t comin’ at ya, then it’s breezed on by.” Thus spake Bob Holman, the ever-surprising whirlmaster of poetry. His new handset book of Brevitas poems forms an actual box when pulled open.

Holman has famously pushed the boundaries of poetry. He’s also revolutionized presentation and distribution—from the Poetry Calendar, to poetry videos, to the Double Talk Show, to inventing poetry slams and opening the Bowery Poetry Club.

Throughout all these endeavors he’s written and performed his ultra-verse, fusing poetry with aural acrobatics and charging the stage with energetic deliveries.

Box is another vehicle for expanding our appreciation of poetry. Folded up, it resembles a book with a spine. Opened and spread out flat into eight sections it offers us a semiotic puzzle.

“CALL IT// NO BOX,” the poet exhorts, in old fashioned letters on crisp orange paper that evokes both Dadaist manifestoes and Concrete poetry. “UN/ bOx” is presented in winning typography with its condensed “b” and stretched “O.” Across from it dances “ANTI BOX” in shadow letters.

At the book party, Holman knelt inside a cardboard box with his head popping out and read Box along with some new poems. It was humbling, ironic, dramatic, childish, original…and “the wind lay along the ground.”

Jeffrey Cyphers Wright


David Varno

DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.

Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

Roger Van Voorhees


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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