The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2012

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NOV 2012 Issue

MAPPING THE GRAIN: Silver, Mercury, and Lead Go into a Bar…

“There is no room for fence-sitting.” — Cicero

Larry Fagin
Complete Fragments
(Cuneiform Press, 2012)

Larry Fagin is the quintessential New York School poet. Born in 1937, he serves as a bridge between first, second, and third generation New York School. He combines the cosmopolitan breeziness of O’Hara’s Personism with the trademark humor of Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett.

Fagin seduces the reader, one bon mot at a time, in poems that are like multiple plays occurring simultaneously. His conversational manner and punchline timing serve as decoys, veiling the profundity. In “Bus Explosion,” “another bespoke poem, written while I wrote,” Fagin asks, “What is your favorite cholera?”

A juggernaut of textures roll through the lines, demanding constant reassessment. Pronouns trade places, characters bob to the surface and recede, and the “little Dutch girl” and Dingle Hoofer and His Dog dance beside Virgil and Ovid. And when Fagin pivots, he does so with traction. A “divine secret” is “more like a billing issue.” Sigh.

Ted Berrigan praised Fagin for having the “high stylist’s trademark” of being “happily, typical.” That is to say, as Fagin pursues the internal logic of the poem, his flights remain corporeal. His cartoonish but sophisticated persona is ever-present.

Never static, these poems pose open-ended enigmas. They form a seamless weaving of artistic puzzles—songs, malapropisms, twisted clichés, erudition, and tautologies. Then, just in the right place, a blunt detail debases the distillation and brings it all back home. “Wells Fargo office held up.”

Fagin ratchets the vernacular to a fever pitch. “Gimme a pigfoot.” His svelte wisecracks and the silken wonderment of his running line have “left a leg on the tracks for allegorical futures.”


Juliana Leslie
Green is for World
(Coffee House Press, 2012)

These mercurial “love letters” to the universe exude style. Like philosophic observations from an observatory, they are mysteriously promising. Juliana Leslie penned these 23 poems while working on her doctorate, which shows in their ethereality.

“I am between trees / I would have said // my acts are bookish // and intense.” Leslie can be intense. Her inventive use of syntax is surprising, meditative, and lyrical. 

The diction is studded with re-starts and back-ups. Shifting verb/subject agreements embrace multiple viewpoints rather than a definitive narration.

A theme Leslie repeats is incorporating the act of writing into the script so that “the medium undergoes a metamorphosis.”  She takes “the temperature of the poem.” She fights for a “writer’s handmade October.” She admits, “I am almost a sonnet.”

An ongoing investigative interest in the materiality of language gives her writing a sculptural edge. Daily incidentals like the afternoon sun, lace, or a green cup act as touch points. A sensitive persona gradually emerges as Leslie declaims, “I am not the thread of my own subjects.”

Under the glittering texture, the substance is occasionally challenging. I guess the word “noisy” saves this ending. “I held on to my ideas / regarding the noisy rocks / and planets.”

Leslie’s poems whisper and whistle along, moving things and rearranging the path. “Me a clear space / and you / sun’s silk.”


Todd Boss
(W.W. Norton & Company, 2012)

Does a back cover endorsement from Tony Hoagland consign a poet to the “safety pen” school of mainstream verse? I pondered this while reading Boss’s latest collection, which is admittedly influenced by Robert Frost.

Home, family, the land, work—Todd Boss addresses these rhythms of life with an even hand. Never veering, he tracks his subjects, a relentless bloodhound. Squeezing the washcloth his mother wrings “a miraculous / stream of silver dish wash / into the days last gleam.” 

Rhyme is Boss’s ally. Assonance too, with its repeating vowel sounds, is ascribed to with great resonance and musical cadence.

“Call as you Will” embodies emotion, imagination and desire in a lost dog. This dog is in a dream and is “lost — lost / good in the // heart’s deep // wood.” This is a wonderful, tactile conceit (with Frostian thrust).

Boss’s poems reflect simply on a mirror-calm surface, yet underneath they surge with volume and pull. When a song in a department store reminds him of his father, he revels in his reverie, caressing phrases with lyric glory: “as the last cascades of notes / come unstrung from memory / and melt into the past, you’ll / feel what he felt….” 

A straight shooter, Boss comes across, no doubt. Form and content fuse in the slender sequence commemorating the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse. He just needs to watch out for when “dawn” and “lawn” and “night” and “flight” become predictable, despite their impeccable context. We may want to stop in the woods on a snowy evening, but we don’t want the poems to be wooden.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2012

All Issues