Saturday, April 25, 2009

Old Forms, Made New

Great “Dardanic” Prose Poems

The Dardanus Crab
(yes, it relates to poems . . . please, read on!)

Is there a particular term for a poem, particularly a prose-poem – that takes for its own some other, well-known, typically non-poetic form or style? Probably there is, but dang if I know (can anybody help?).

Until somebody tells me the proper term (or until a better word comes along), I’m going to make one up. For this post at least, I’ve coined the adjectives “dardanusian” or, more trippingly for the tongue, “dardanic,” to describe poems that are made from a well-established, typically non-poetic, form or style.

These coined words derive from the remarkable wonder known as the Dardanus crab. The Dardanus, a type of hermit crab, uses for its “home” the abandoned shell of another creature, just as all hermit crabs do. The Dardanus, however, also decorates the shell it borrows. The crab may attach bits of algae, other pieces of marine invertebrates, or even an entire sea anemone to the shell it has taken as its own.

The Dardanus thereby specially makes the borrowed form – the shell – its own. That’s a pretty apt analogy, I think, for what a poet does when making something new using an established form that’s typically used for something else. Ergo, the “dardanic” poem.

I’ve an ardent fondness for dardanic prose-poems. Maybe it’s just my sometimes contrarian nature, but I just dig it when a form or style typically used for some non-poetic function is subverted and used as a platform for word-experiment and reverie. The results – as the several examples discussed below I think well show – are usually real interesting and often great fun.

My all-time favorite dardanic prose poem was written by the recently deceased J.G. Ballard. Here’s the cover of the first edition, a chapbook from1968 that’s a true rarity these days, with a title that’s still a shocker:

Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan also appeared in 1968 in The International Times (the great English “hippie” newspaper) and in (this can be a bit confusing) an English ‘zine titled Ronald Reagan The Magazine of Poetry, alongside work by Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, and others. It since has been included in various Ballard collections (most notably The Atrocity Exhibition), although the first try at American publication in 1970 never came off in that the publisher – a big, established house – pulped the entire edition, a collection of Ballard’s writings, solely because of it.

Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan, in the perfectly accurate words of the Wikipedia entry, “is written in the style of a scientific paper and catalogues an apocryphal series of bizarre experiments intended to measure the psychosexual appeal of Ronald Reagan, then the Governor of California.”

That description, while perfectly accurate, hardly conveys the mad brilliance of the poem’s wigged out, hilarious, faux-scientific assertions. Here’s a snippet from one of the seven short sections of the poem. It shows well the poem’s damn-the-torpedoes-and-all-the-taboos-too spirit, as well as its deadpan hyper-rational past-tense scientific journal style:
Incidence of orgasms in fantasies of sexual intercourse with Ronald Reagan. Patients were provided with assembly kit photographs of sexual partners during intercourse. In each case Reagan’s face was super imposed upon the original partner. Vaginal intercourse with “Reagan” proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in 2% of subjects. Axillary, buccal, navel, aural, and orbital modes produced proximal erections. The preferred mode of entry overwhelmingly proved to be the rectal. After a preliminary course in anatomy it was found that the caecum and transverse colon also provided excellent sites for excitation. In an extreme 12% of cases, the simulated anus of post-colostomy surgery generated spontaneous orgasm in 98% of penetrations . . . .
Wow (exclamation mark not necessary). Just, wow. Full credit must be given for the range of “modes” presented, and the Latinate adjectives of those modes. In particular, I fixate on “buccal,” a word that quite neatly embodies its own meaning via its two mouth-filling consonantal-vowelic syllables.

The real beauty in the writing is its coruscating wit, which is particularly sparkling because of the poem’s straight-face Joe Friday-just-the-facts tone, which of course is identical to that found in any number of written descriptions of scientific studies. The frisson here between style and content never lets up, and just sears into the memory. That Reagan more than a decade after the poem was published became President, and an iconic one at that, only adds to the wonder of Ballard’s irreducible dissident work.

I suppose it can be argued whether Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan is a prose-poem. Some describe it as a short story. Others, including the Wikipedia entry, are less specific, calling it “a short work,” while author Neil Gaiman terms it an “un-stor[y].” But really, it’s a prose poem. There’s no conventional narrative, or characters or dialogue of any kind. And, as mentioned above, one of its first appearances in 1968 was in a poetry journal.


Perhaps the first prose-poem to lift its style from some other written form was Arthur Rimbaud’s “Solde” (in English: “Sale”) written it seems to me in the style of classified advertisements, or the listings in whatever was the equivalent of Craig’s List in 1870s France. The items Rimbaud offers for purchase, of course, are pure wild invention, and seem to encompass almost anything imaginable. Here are two short paragraphs from near the poem’s end (Wallace Fowlie translation):
      For sale dwellings and migrations, sports, fantasies and perfect comfort, with the noise, movement, and future they create!
      For sale results of mathematics and unheard of scales of harmony. Discoveries and unsuspected terminologies, immediate possession.
A few years ago, at the apex of the disaster known as the George W. Bush presidency, Seattle’s John Olson published a wonderful prose poem “after” Rimbaud’s “Sale.” Olson’s poem, also called “Sale” and included in his Backscatter (Black Widow Press 2008), lists various items for sale - as does Rimbaud’s poem - in the manner of a series of classified ads. Olson presents many of the items for sale in wild series of superbly etched, beyond-fresh images and word-combinations, such as this paragraph from near the poem’s middle:
      For sale the fable of a nipple reflected in a spoon. A winter ballad and a song of sticks. The fervent applause of a stadium wild with the metaphysics of noise. The clarity of a haiku enshrined in water. A piece of gravity dipped in sunrise. A circle of day painted to resemble a square full of goats and zinnias. An ingot of zeros melted into romantic hardware.
However, one paragraph of Olson’s “Sale” takes an entirely different tack. In five short, sharp sentences, Olson cuts through the crap of the Bush years and offers a biting comment on the hijacking of our core values:
      For sale used country. Former democratic United States. Only 230 years old. Comes with original constitution. Population not included.
Any buyers out there? Didn’t think so.


Alan Halsey and Karen Mac Cormack, in their collaborative collection Fit To Print (Coach House Books / West House Books, 1998) present a number of prose poems that are formatted in fully justified double columns, with a headline on top, such that the poems look like articles typically read in a printed newspaper. Here’s an example, one of the shorter article-poems, and one credited to Mac Cormack (click to enlarge):

I especially love the three two-word sentences that end this one: I’ve been reading those for years and still find them fascinating. In any event, the text of this – as in all other poems in Fit To Print – does not conform to newspaper conventions. There are no one-sentence paragraphs, reverse pyramidal structures, or a focus on the who, what, where, when, and why of anything. As in the J.G. Ballard Reagan poem, the conflict between the well-worn, typically non-poetic form – here, the newspaper-style layout – and the decidedly non-journalistic text set out within it, creates energy. It’s odd, and fun: no matter how many of the wild prose poem experiments in Fit To Print I read, or even if I read an individual example over and over, I still expect each time – given the look of the poem – to find a conventional newspaper story. Such is the power of form, and thus the leverage the poets here take advantage of when they subvert it.

Meg Hamill, in her Death Notices (Factory School 2006), also uses the newspaper column format, and within that the style of the newspaper obituary notice, to make prose poems. Her poems explicate and meditate on Iraq war deaths, mostly concerning deaths that would otherwise not be noticed, and raise questions about pain, interconnectedness, complicity, compassion, and mourning. Here’s one of the obituary-poems (click image to enlarge it in a new window):

I’ve written about the poems in Death Notices before (click here to read, if you please)
, and will only further note here that the use of the established form and style is perfectly suited to the new work Hamill creates.


The most fun dardanic prose poem(s) ever may be those in John Ashbery’s 100 Multiple-Choice Questions (Adventures in Poetry, 2001 [first publication, in a ‘zine, in 1970]). These poems, as the title indicates, take the form of test questions in a format recognized – and perhaps beloved – by anyone who ever went to school. Here’s the chapbook’s cover:

Ashbery’s poems are big fun first because some, particularly those early in the sequence, are just straight-ahead old-fashioned test questions and answers. We readers – knowing Ashbery – can’t resist looking, and looking again and again, for poetic twists that just don’t exist, and in doing so somehow give the mundane questions and answers a kind of creative spark they ought not have. Ashbery’s play-it-straight trick thus works both as a fun reverse-joke and reverie-generator (click on image to enlarge on a new page):

The real fun, not surprisingly, comes when Ashbery veers or maybe more accurately plunges deep into the abstract, paratactic, and nonsensical, as in the following four sets of questions and answers (again, click on image to enlarge on a new page):

Can you imagine inserting the above into some college (oh, let’s really have some fun, and imagine some stodgy MFA program) final exam? Now that would be fun.


Harry Crosby, in his regrettably unavailable and neglected Mad Queen (Black Sun Press 1928) – a book that was singled out by Philip Lamantia for its “magnanimity in the realms of mad love” – created three of the greatest dardanic poems ever. The first poem in the book, “Stud Queen,” takes the form of a racehorse pedigree chart, showing the entirety of four generations that brought about MAD QUEEN, an imagined idealized entity, and whose sire and brood-mare lineage precisely delineates her wondrous, dangerous character (and thus Crosby’s imaginative world). It’s a veritable assemblage-portrait, a marvelous mix of historical personages, objects, poems, mythic figures, abstractions, and invented entities (click on the image to enlarge it on a new page):

I think every poet out there out to invent a love ideal and then create a pedigree chart of their own. A collection of such dardanic poems, each containing thirty nodes, centers, and/or precursors of influence and inspiration for each poet, would be fantastic!

Another dardanic prose-poem in Crosby’s Mad Queen takes as its form a will (the legal document disposing of one’s estate upon death). Specifically, the poem presents the last will and testament of the sun (Crosby, to be cheap about it, had a HUGE thing for the sun). In addition to introductory and conclusory matter that mimics or echoes language typical in a legal will, Crosby’s poem – titled “Sun-Testament” – contains twenty-eight separate codicils in which the sun specifies how the estate should be disbursed. Here are four of the codicils, each of which reflects on, or is emblematic of, Crosby’s creative energy (remember, the sun is the “speaker” in the poem):
      EIGHTH, I give and bequeathe to the planet
Venus all my eruptive prominences whether in
spikes or jets or sheafs or volutes in honor of her
all-too-few transits.
                                       . . .
      FIFTEENTH, I give and bequeathe to Icarus a
sun-shade and a word of introduction to the Moon.
                                       . . .
      EIGHTEENTH,I give and bequeathe to Arthur
Rimbaud my firecrackers and cannoncrackers,
to Vincent Van Gogh my red turmoil and hot-
headedness to Stravinsky my intensity and fire.
                                       . . .
      TWENTY-FIFTH, I give and bequeathe to my
favorite concubine The Mad Queen my fiery
flames and furious commotions, my madnesses
and explosions, my storms and tempests.
The final dardanic poem in Crosby’s book takes the form of a page from a telephone directory. It’s a page of business listings, each business having “Mad Queen” as the first part of its name. The kind of businesses, as well as the phone number prefixes, again reflect the interests, spirit, and concerns of Crosby (again, click on the image to enlarge it on a new page):

I sure wish I could dial up a few of those numbers and have someone answer, just to see what’s cooking!


Now, I’m pretty sure there are other dardanic poems out there, particularly in prose, that either I’ve just plain not remembered or – more likely – just haven’t yet read. I’m not sure who all wanders into this here blog-glade, but if you have, and you’ve made it this far, and you know of other examples – please, please let me know [and please see footnote 1, immediately below].

1. There are also prose poems in the form of footnotes. Among these are Tyrone Williams’ “Cold Calls” (included in his C.C. (Krupskaya, 2002), and the pieces within Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay (2002 and Essay Press, 2007). In both works, the prose poem footnotes are found at the bottom of pages that are otherwise blank. The footnote as a borrowed form has rich possibilities poetically. Typically, the footnote serves to explain or add information that might be too digressive for the main text, and/or acts as a signpost, pointing to information or text that might otherwise remain occult. Good poetry sometimes embodies both these functions.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Puhleeze, it’s way overdue . . .

Dear good folks who are the deciders on this thing: Please give the dang Pulitzer Prize for Poetry this year to a book of (mainly) prose poetry. Once in almost 90 years just doesn’t cut it. And how about at the same time giving the prize to a book of wild, experimental prose poetry? Puhleeze, do it now!

The 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
will be WAS (see update at end of post!) announced

Monday, April 20, 2009
3:00 pm Eastern time
(12 noon Pacific)

The Pulitzer Prize for Poetry – always a newsworthy (if but a paragraph or two) event – is by history a deeply flawed award, deserving of great applause maybe once every ten years or so. Most of the time the achievement recognized ain’t so memorable, and the poetry that receives the prize has mostly ranged from “S” (for school, as in academic) back to “Q” (for quiet), with the “R” in between, regrettably, standing for “routine.” Wild, Out There, or Experimental (or even experimental) are not the sort of terms generally or even ever applied to the prize-winning book.

Maybe the most incredible of the incredible Pulitzer oversights over the decades – and never more apparent than now – concerns prose poetry. In the almost 90 years in which a poetry Pulitzer has been awarded, a book of prose poetry has been awarded the prize exactly once (in 1989, for Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End). This award was controversial. As Simic said ten years ago, almost ten years after it happened, some in the literary establishment never got over it, in that they consider prose poetry a kind of fraud.

Well, if prose poetry’s a fraud, then I should be locked up for my own protection, because I’ve been conned by it repeatedly and deeply for years now. There’s that imposter Arthur Rimbaud and his bamboozling Illuminations, the trickster Gertrude Stein and the chicanery of her Tender Buttons, to mention but two of many tricksters who have scammed me. I’ve been cheated particularly often in recent years, in that it seems that almost every third book of poetry I really enjoy falls into the prose poetry category.

This year would be one hell of a moment to give the nod, the Pulitzer Prize, to a book of prose poetry, a wild, out there, and experimental book at that.

There were two books published in 2008 – both of which made my list of 20 great poetry books published last year – in which prose poems dominate and which could justly claim the Pulitzer. One of these books, in fact, seems an obviously appropriate winner of the prize. Now, I’m assuming that one or both of these books were actually entered in the competition (it requires sending four copies of the book and fifty bucks to a Columbia University address by a certain date). And of course I’m further assuming, against all the evidence, that those who decide on the award are ready to give the $10,000 cash prize and attendant recognition to a book of poems that are not only in prose, but way outside the mainstream.

The first book that rightly could claim the prize is Backscatter, by John Olson (Boston: Black Widow Press). I’ve written about this book (click here to go, if you please) and continue to greatly enjoy it. It’s a new and selected poems full of prose poems (with some traditional verse) that blow my mind. Here’s the book’s cover, and then a few sentences from“This Other World: An Essay On Artistic Autonomy,” a mix of poetics and prose-poetry that kicks off Backscatter and leaves no doubt as to the values of Olson the poet:

“The exhilaration of poetry is in its gall, its brassy irrelevance and gunpowder vowels, its pulleys and popcorn and delirious birds. It is transcendent yet wild, a whirl of energy in a shell of sound. A leopard of thought moving with stealth through a jungle of words.”

Now, I mean no disrespect to Olson, whose poetry I adore, but the other book published last year that could rightly claim the poetry Pulitzer really ought to get it. Ron Silliman’s the Alphabet (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press) is the result of almost thirty years of work, and as such represents an achievement that very few poets ever even approach. Plus, at about one thousand pages, the book has to be the largest collection of poetry published last year. These facts, along with of course the book’s spectacular poetry, are precisely what should compel the award of the Pulitizer: a towering, distinguished book of original poems.

I’ve written about the Alphabet twice, once regarding its puns (click here) and once about a few of my favorite things in the book (click here). If a book ever should cause those who decide the poetry Pulitizer to really go in a different direction, the Alphabet is it.

I mean, puhl-leeze!

Here’s the book’s cover, and then a single if long sentence from the start of section XXXVII of YOU (the next to last poem in the Alphabet) that in its careful exacting presentation of particular after particular shows well the hypnotic power of Silliman’s poetry and the skill with which he writes (and which will be a special joy to those who, as I do, love to watch baseball):

“As the pop foul descends from the heavens into the crowd, hands and gloves shoot skyward, bodies thrusting themselves up, straining, grasping, parody of a scene on Iwo Jima, while below others cringe & cower, popcorn, beers, sodas spilling in all directions, the sculptural effect complete (at least half of the participants appear to have their eyes shut), a phenomenon that repeats in smaller and less hysterical numbers again and again as the loose ball bounces untouched from section to section until a boy with an oversized blue glove smothers it against his chest.”


UPDATE (April 20, 2009 at 12:15 Pacific Time) on PULITZER SELECTION:

Well, the Pulitzer folks sure didn’t listen to me. The award was given to W.S. Merwin, The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon Press), a collection of (surprise, surprise) lineated verse.

Maybe next time for John Olson and Ron Silliman. I’m pretty sure they’ll do fine without it, just as did (among others) Ginsberg, Creeley, Charles Olson, Duncan, Rexroth, Stein, and Zukofsky. Remarkable, isn’t it?

The lack of Pulitzer recognition for prose poetry remains profound. Backscatter and the Alphabet now join a growing list of snubbed collections of such poems, each of which for me continues as a source of mystery, wonder and head-shaking greatness, including: John Ashbery, Three Poems (1972), Lyn Hejinian, My Life, (1980), Lyn Hejinian, My Life (revised and updated) (1987), Jackson Mac Low, Pieces o’ Six: Thirty-Three Poems in Prose (1991), Bruce Andrews, I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism) (1992), Russell Edson, The Tunnel: Selected Poems (1994), Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002), and Julianne Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How the heck did I miss this one?

Yes indeed, how the heck did I miss this one?

Just a few months ago, I posted here in the glade about two small books published last year – Naturalistless, by Christopher Rizzo, and Aaron Tieger’s The Collected Typos of Aaron Tieger – that consisted entirely of intentionally or accidently made-up words (click here to check it out, if you please).

Well, what do you know: just a few months before that post of mine, Xerox Sutra Editions published texistence, by Geof Huth & mIEKAL aND (the lower case title, ampersand, and reversed-from-normal majuscules on the second poet’s name are how it is on the book’s title page), a book with three hundred (three hundred!) made-up words, and nothing but those three hundred made-up words.

When published in August 2008, the book was featured on co-author Huth’s dbqp: visualizing poetics blog, and on Crg Hill’s Poetry Scorecard. I didn’t see either, unfortunately, and also missed Greg Ingersoll’s December, 2008 mention of the book on his Dare I read? blog. Ingersoll’s post includes a few of his favorite words from the book, and notes, I think rightly, that the made-up words in texistence can be used to construct one’s own definitions or for just looking at and thinking .

Well, since I can’t hit the rewind button and return to the weeks or months immediately after texistence first appeared, all I can do is get on it now. So let’s go:

My oh my this book’s a bonanza for bonkered bozos such as me, who loves poets who at least on occasion, or even habitually, throw open the neologic window and let the winds of invention blow what they will onto the page. (I feel the same, by the way, about poets who unscrew the syntactic doors from their jambs such that words can enter and exit as they please.)

A short note on the copyright page of texistence explains that he authors call their made-up words “pwoermds,” Of course, the term is itself what it describes, here a jumble of “words” and “poems” (or “words” and “poem”). The explanatory note also explains that the two authors wrote the words over two days in June 2008. The publisher’s webpage has a further note, explaining that the two poets collaborated on each of the three hundred words, with the authors trading off who first supplied letters and who then completed each word.

Huth’s & aND’s pwoermds are far out. Fun for the whole family, I’d imagine, or even for the isolatos out there, bless their lonely souls, looking for something a little different. With 300 examples, it’s quite possible to not only stare long and hard at each one, and to do so for quite some time, but also to make entire sentences by pulling together several examples. Here are 23 pwoermds from texistence, which I've arranged into five sentences:
Wharn ompiallo yeorem helmth lascade. Lopious qualmishion demagogo platation. Ewebabble din’t rejict azzle-addled endglyph. Tetrum swalter obrastic, podgy shidrick subpremely gumptatious. Mulljam plumn.
With three hundred words, the combinatory and permutational possibilities are vast; an exact calculation is beyond me, but I’d guess my fingers would become blistered from all the typing before the delicious revelatory neologic nonsense was exhausted.

It’s not just the words themselves that are different in texistence, but also their arrangement on the pages. Although always one to a page (thus a three hundred page book, with the vast majority of each page left blank), the words are neither centered nor even located in the same place page-to-page. Instead, on the versos (left side pages) each word is placed hard against the left-side margin, and on the rectos (right-side pages) they’re placed against the right margin. On the verso, the first page’s word is placed at the very bottom, and thus the left corner of the page; on the first recto page, the word is at the top, and thus at the top right corner.

Then things start to move. On each succeeding page, the word is placed one line above (on the versos) the one on the previous page, or (for the rectos) one line below the preceding page. And when after a dozen or so pages the words on the respective margins have hit the top (or bottom) of the respective pages, the process is reversed. The up (and down) shot of this arrangement: the book, both front-to-back and vice-versa, can be quick-read as a flip-book, with the words as you go falling and/or rising on the respective margins, as well as (when both the verso and recto or viewed at the same time) coming closer to or moving out of alignment with each other. It’s fun!

Of course, I’ve fallen deep for certain of the pwoermds. It’s not fair to all the others, I know, but such attractions can’t be denied. The first one I really, really like is very Saroyanish (Aram), if I may invoke again (click here) the work of the pioneer of the one-word poem, including especially of the type in which the one word is slightly but profoundly altered (e.g., lighght).

As with every Saroyan altered single-word poems, the Huth & aND creation I spotlight here looks great as an object on the page, even if pronunciation and meaning – what it might signify – are difficult to pin down. It’s an adverbial suffix with an extra letter “l” added to the front, which was then allowed to multiply almost to the point of running amok. Doesn’t that whet your eyeballs? Here it is (I've centered the word here, and those that follow, to create a clean look):


Another favorite maybe isn’t as beautiful a signifier-object as the one above, but nevertheless strikes deep both because it seems almost real (although the dictionary and spellchecker say it isn’t) and, real or not, is rich with connotations of crazed biological horror, given the similarities in soundand spelling to words (psychotic and zygote) that most anyone can hear and see. I think this one has a real future:


My most-favorite pwoermd in texistence – geez, my enthusiasm sometimes sounds sappy, don’t it? – is similar to the words made by Christopher Rizzo in Naturalistless, in which the end letters of one word are joined with the starting letters of another, such that two familiar words are seamlessly combined to form an unfamiliar, yet oddly not so unfamiliar, new word. Here’s Huth’s & aND’s big winner, at least to the ol’ softie romantic within me:


Awwww, ain’t that something? I’m just in hypnolove with that one, thank you very much.


texistence also works as an arrow, pointing to related works by Huth and aND. I’ve put a check in the mail to Runaway Spoon Press, which published the Huth-edited Ampersand Squared (2004), an anthology of pwoermds that includes an introduction by Huth concerning poet-made newwords. I’ve also PayPal-ed money to Xexoxial Editions, for three publications by mIEKAL aND that, from the publisher’s description, contain almost entirely invented words: Voyage 1984 Greta Garbo Box (1983), Introgic Enclodiacy (1985), and Euy (1986). The latter is described as “A zaumist biography of Alexei Kruchenykh, each page a single invented word . . . .”

Also grand – maybe the ne plus ultra of the invented word adventure, assuming you want definitions attached to the newwords – is a website curated by mIEKAL aND called (misspelling in the original, and obviously intentional) The Internalational Dictionary of Neologisms, containing more than 2500 of the things (click here to go)!

And so the reverie-fun shall continue . . . .

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hey Joe, What you doin' . . .

. . . with those Particulars in your tiny, little Poems?

Well, first thing I’m going to do here is apologize for the post title. It’s a pretty cheap trick, even for me. Sure, Massey’s first name, in its familiar form, fits with the opening words of the rock song popularized by Jimi Hendrix. But properly speaking, the poet here is Joseph, not Joe. And in any event, the rest of my borrowing is lame: there’s no clever pun, there’s no matching of syllables or even echoing of the rhythmic beauty of the song lyric.

But still, I used it. It seems catchy, and, more than that, the answer to the question it poses – which, put more directly, is what makes Joseph Massey’s poems work so well? – will explain much about why I – and why I think many others – really like his work, and why Areas of Fog is a sensational book o' poems.

Areas of Fog, with just over 100 pages and at least that many poems, is Massey’s first full-length collection. It follows a half-dozen or so chapbooks in the last four or so years that had print runs of at most a few hundred copies each, almost all of which are now out-of-print. These books received positive to glowing reviews on the web, including by CA Conrad (November 2005), Matthew Henriksen (December 2005), Ron Silliman (December 2, 2005 and October 26, 2006), Sandra Simonds (March 2007), Joseph Bradshaw (2007), and Andy Grace (February 2008), and in print, perhaps most notably from Rae Armantrout (American Poet Magazine, Fall 2006).

Joseph Massey makes short, small, even tiny poems, most of which consist of particulars concisely put. The longest poem in Areas of Fog has but 80 words, the second-longest about 50, and those two are extreme outliers. The vast majority of the book’s poems are made of around twenty – sometimes around a dozen – words, and some have but eight or nine or even fewer. To put that in perspective, there were twenty-six words in the sentence you just read. This sentence right here, count ‘em, has nine words. Here are nine from Massey, a “lune” (a haiku variant form, apparently invented by Robert Kelly):
        rain gutter running
over with
                 sun-stiffened weeds, leaves

Short, concise poems of particulars are of course central to certain long-established poetic forms, practices, or traditions. Haiku, concise and much concerned with details, has been written for hundreds of years (the renderings here are by Robert Hass):
        The hollyhocks
lean toward the sun
        in the May rain
        – Bashō (17th century)
        A heavy cart rumbles by
and the peonies
        – Buson (18th century)
Of course, particulars and concision, almost one hundred years ago now, were also core principles for the imagists and certain modernists. Think here, for example, of Ezra Pound’s metro station (1913), William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow (1923), and Charles Reznikoff’s poem, published in 1920:

Moonlit Night

The trees’ shadows lie in black pools on the lawns.

Massey in his poems renews these forms and practices, making powerful poems unique to him and very much of the here and now, not old-fashioned or retro-conservative. The main reasons for his accomplishment, aside from the inherent potency of the super-short poem of particulars as a poetic approach, seem obvious after reading Areas of Fog clean through three times and many of its parts six or eight times more. First, Massey brings to the poems a marvelous mind (including attention to details and the ability and confidence to edit and isolate to essentials), a marvelous eye (detail again), and a marvelous way with and ideas about words (more about this below).

Along with all that marvelousness – and this is important – is plenty of what the Scots might (and what Hugh MacDiarmid did) call “amplefeysts and toves” plus self-awareness and transparent honesty. This all, as I’ll also discuss a bit more below, root or anchor the poems, which might sometimes – given their almost airy brevity and reliance on finely observed detail – almost want to float away. It’s a complicated mix, but the result is a collection of pitch-perfect, nuanced poems that reward close study and repeated readings.

Massey’s poems arise from the Humboldt County area of Northern California, renowned for redwoods, high grade weed, and seascapes. His lines are rich with localized details. A co-worker who grew up on the Lost Coast (a magnificent rugged and remote stretch about 50 miles south of Eureka, the county seat), and with whom I shared Massey’s poem “Lost Coast” from Areas of Fog, almost instantly said that she knew the poem’s precise geographic setting, given its description of a sea-stack crowded with seabirds, a road, cattle corralled behind barbed wire, and, at the poem’s end, these further details:
. . . . We know
it will soon be
too dim
to navigate
the switchbacks
without guardrails
we descended
to arrive.
(Anyone who has hiked a trail that repeatedly traverses a steep hill or incline can testify as to how effectively the line-breaks and word-rhythms here mimic the actuality of that experience.)

Yet while there are plenty of “location shots” throughout the book (by which I mean precise, finely put particulars, as well as a few poem titles that use recognizable place names) that will strongly resonate with anyone familiar with the area, Massey’s poems aren’t simple picture postcards, at least not the kind visitors typically like to send home. The first poem set out in this post, the three line lune describing a gutter choked with old weeds and leaves, is more typical of the details Massey observes and puts into poems. There are other poems centered on abandoned lots, burned out houses, bird shit, the stain of a crushed ant, a wad of gum, old rain-soaked newspapers, etc. etc.

Let me put it like this: writing from a place that’s world- renowned for its resplendent transcendent redwoods, such trees show up exactly once in Massey’s book, and here it is (from “Boardwalk, Humboldt Bay”):
Water brown
as the red-
wood trunks

stacked on
flatbed trucks
trudging down 101.
Not exactly the kind of image the tourist board is going to use in a brochure touting the region’s scenic wonders. But of course Massey’s image is precisely correct. As anyone who’s driven through the area must admit, those trucks piled with those logged trees are very, very common.

The verbs in the excerpt quoted above – particularly the “trudging” in the last line, are examples of what I consider Massey’s remarkable way with verbs and words in general. Because the poems are so small, any vocabularian or other missteps would leap off the page, and I must say I spotted not a single “clam” (to use a musical term), even with my often regrettable if sometimes useful tendency to look hard for mistakes.

The verbs are key for another reason. They can instantly give a poem what William Carlos Williams (in his preface to his collection The Wedge) termed an “intrinsic movement of its own. . . .” If Williams’ construct is accepted, then Massey’s poems really go. The action verbs stand out in Massey’s poems, they’re always well chosen and often quite surprising, by which I mean fresh. Splayed, dangled, threshed, submerges, snag: these examples, lifted from just the first several poems in the book, indicate the sharpness of what occurs in many of Massey’s poems.

My favorite verb in the book appears near the end of the poem titled “2:08 AM” (how about that title for precision!), and concerns what tree frogs did to, or for, the dark. The word used is striking, seems not quite right but then exactly apt and thus becomes quite memorable by which I mean unforgettable. But I ain’t giving it up here, though: buy the god damn book already (it’ll only cost you about $18.50, including mailing, at places such as Amazon that discount ten percent and don’t charge tax, or about $22 total with tax and mailing via Small Press Distribution).

My second favorite verb in Areas of Fog describes what a particular neon sign does. I won’t ever look at one of those the same way again. And speaking of again, I’m again not giving it away here. Just remember, one of the greatest achievements in writing, or really of any art, is making you see the world, or a part of it, in a new, fresh, and/or unforgettable way.

I’m right with Ezra Pound when he describes little poems similar to those in Areas of Fog, or more accurately the details or images that make up such poems, as “radiant node[s].” And I’m right with critic Hugh Kenner too, when he explains that the “‘plot’” of such poems might be described as the “mind’s activity, fetching some new thing into the field of consciousness.” I think the “mind” here is both the poet’s, making the poem, and the reader’s, making it new each time the poem’s read.

I mentioned above Massey’s “amplefeysts and toves” (the term can be roughly translated as varying moods tending towards the out-of-sorts), and let me say a bit more about that. Since reading (and re-reading) much writing by Clayton Eshleman a few months ago, and briefly corresponding with him, I’ve been thinking about the value of (to use Eshleman’s terms) “self-confrontation” in poetry, including the exploring or presentation in poems of the “jagged chasms and cold furnaces” that may be a part of one’s personality.

Massey’s poems, perhaps surprisingly given their brevity and reliance on sharp observed particulars drawn from the world around us, are not safe-haven retreats from life’s challenges. It’s always subtle, but those challenges, the actualities of a lived life, are there, and they are strong: sometimes almost explicit or more-or-less directly inferable, as in a word or three in certain poems suggesting habitual drinking, interpersonal arguments, isolation, frustration, too-quick anger or irritability, and depression. Sometimes it’s more or entirely implicit, as in references in a number of poems to the sun blotting, clotting, and thudding through the poet’s world, or to such things as a (to quote an entire poem):
        dry-rotted, knotted
garden hose
                 hidden within weeds

which suggests to me a severely compromised situation, to say the least.

Another theme woven in the poems, often very directly, concerns words: lots about their limits and the difficulties they present, but stuff too about what can be done with them, how they can gather (as Massey puts it in a poem titled “After Bronk” (italics and spacing as printed)):
a world—

not the


Some of the poems express (though again subtly or even elliptically) or can be read as, a sharp critique or questioning of certain facts of our culture. As with most poetry, vivid explication is neither possible nor appropriate, but I read the lines of Massey’s “June”:
Dangled above
the traffic’s rasp:

a contrail

a crow

a nail gun’s echo.
and in addition to marveling at the alliterative evocation of “traffic’s rasp” and the simple but perfectly balanced rivet-your-attention 3-2-5 syllabic rhythm of the final three lines (plus the alliterative hard c’s in those lines too), I can’t help but feel that something is not only not right, but very wrong indeed. I see “contrail” as the vapor plume of a military jet, “crow” as an invasive ugly bird, and the “nail gun’s echo,” well that speaks for itself. These conglomerated details suggest mechanized violence, ugliness, intrusion, unwelcome degradation and destruction. Yes, I am perhaps reading too much into it here, and maybe I’ve done the same with other Massey poems, but it’s just that sort of half-wild thinking that comes when reading the best, the well-written and/or finely juxtaposed details or images: “a VORTEX,” Pound wrote, “from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing.”

But also, my heavy reading into the particulars of Massey’s poems – as in the social critique I see in the poem just above, or the suggestions of personal limitations in the poem that simply describes a rotted knotted garden hose hidden in weeds – may be entirely consistent with what the poet has written. Along with seeing the particulars and details, Massey sees or senses lots of correspondences arising from, or, to use his term, “behind” them, or so it seems to me from these two lunes (asterisk inserted to indicate the separation between the works):
        there’s a metaphor
behind each
                 breath your life lets go
        there’s a metaphor
here: the page
                 behind the poem

Switching gears here – this now has to do with Massey’s skill with words – please let me tell you about my favorite bit among all the poems. It may be entirely idiosyncratic to me. Among my fascinations is the idea of speaking in tongues, and other quasi-language utterances (insert here your own joke about how this news comes as no surprise given the gibberish I regularly dish out on this here blog). So you can well imagine my joy-yelp when I first read the final lines of following untitled poem, which I can’t stop myself from sharing in full (with spacing more or less reflecting the presentation in the book):
scent like
an open vowel

wrung out
in the rain’s


The concluding “lines” – a single word bifurcated and separated by empty space – are genius, I hereby declare. The hyphen stretches the alliterative sibilants towards something close to forever, the blank space of course let’s the rain fall, and the four syllable poem-ender is just a gorgeous thing. First, literally as a thing, an aggregation of letters, and also in its sounds (rich with vowels, some of which are indeed “open”), and varied but symmetrical rhythm (a one-vowel syllable, followed by two with double letters, and then the final single vowel syllable).

There’s also in those concluding lines a deft sleight-of-hand with the final word’s hyphenation point: Massey breaks glossolalia in a way that best serves the poem, and seems utterly natural, but not at the double consonant as the rules of punctuation and formal syllabification would require. Right before our eyes, he violates the rule and for a moment or three don’t see what he’s done (the hand is quicker than the eye). A prestidigitator lives in every great poet, I believe. If Areas of Fog were on Broadway – if poetry somehow had its rightful place in our cultural life – the marquee would read “Massey the Magnificent” and the show would run for years, with the public clamoring to experience the spellbinding work of the great magician and his words.

I’d like to end with a few comments on the book itself. Areas of Fog is extremely well designed. Both the cover, featuring an image by Wendy Heldmann, and the presentation of the poems themselves, are beautiful. There’s generally a single poem to a page, a lay-out principle that I adore for the way it exalts each work. Where multiple poems are on a page, there’s a nice amount of space between them. The two longest one-section poems (the ones of approximately 80 and 50 words each), start on the verso (left-hand side) and end on the recto (right-side), meaning that the entirety of the poems is right there before your eyes when they are read.

In short, the elegance of all the poems as printed and presented on the page works perfectly with the poetry itself. The book’s design and composition is credited to Yuki Kites, whose work here deserves big thanks from all us readers. Thanks Yuki Kites, thanks Shearsman (the publisher), and in particular, thanks Joseph Massey, for this sensational book of poems.

Endnote/Sources: The versions of Bashō and Buson are from Robert Hass, Editor, The Essential Haiku (The Ecco Press 1994). The Reznikoff poem is from Seamus Cooney, editor, The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff (Black Sparrow Press 1989). The Ezra Pound “radiant node” and “VORTEX” quotations are from his Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New Directions 1970). The Hugh Kenner quotation is from his The Pound Era (University of California Press 1973). The Clayton Eshleman quotations are from an e-mail, January 2009.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

sdrawkcab WCW

(excerpts from two “works in progress”)


llA dna gnirpS

.snoitcessid daed sa ton
tub – tsixe yeht tuB .ytivitca yreve ot laitnesse
– lamron era sgniht esehT .dloh syawla tsum
dedivid si efil hcihw otni seirogetac dexif ehT
etihw eht ediseb

niar htiw dezalg

leehw der a

sdneped hcum os



All and Spring

.dessications dead as not
but – exist they But .activity every to essential
– normal are things These .hold always must
divided is life which into categories fixed The.
white the besides

rain with glazed

wheel red a

depends much so


“Has life its tail in its mouth or its mouth in its tail?

William Carlos Williams
Spring and All


I always say that . . .
you cannot tell what a book is until you type it . . . .
It then does something to you that only reading can never do.

Gertrude Stein
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas