Sunday, October 31, 2010

Baseball Poems (Batter Up!)

Extra-Special “This Could Be The Season” World Series Post!

“Casey at the Bat” (1888)
Ernest C. “Big Dog” Thayer
“The crowd at the ball game” (1923)
William Carlos “Doc” Williams
“Baseball & Writing” (1961)
Marianne “Smoothie” Moore
“Great Catch” (1974)
Thomas “TC” Clark
“As the pop foul descends . . .” (1995)
Ron “LongPoem” Silliman

Baseball and me have always been close. This season – here in my hometown, the place I was born, the city with which I share initials (“SF” natch!) – has been a special thrill. This particular Giant’s team – “castoffs and misfits” – has repeatedly left me heart-attacked and joy-teared. I love it, and while the World Series continues (San Francisco is up 3 games to 1 as I post this) I will always cherish this one, no matter how it turns out.

To celebrate this season I write today about baseball poems. I do so also to make-up in some small way to the gods of poetry, given that in recent weeks I’ve spent a lot of time watching and thinking about the Giants, instead of reading poems. However, I must insist that I’ve always loved baseball poems. In fact, my very first (!) post here in the glade concerned two of them: Kenneth Goldsmith’s appropriated transcript of the longest (time-wise) nine inning major league game ever, and Yo-Yo’s With Money, the transcribed you-are-there (at Yankee Stadium) wild dialogue of Ted Berrigan and Harris Schiff (click here to see, if you please).

Among the many other baseball poems out there (click here for a web page that lists a few dozen), I spotlight today four that are to me perennial pennant winners. The first might be a cliche, but I insist a classic still: Ernest Thayer’s 1888 “Casey at the Bat.” Wikipedia claims the poem has had “a profound effect on American popular culture,” and I say, I think that’s right. When the U.S. post office in 1996 issued a set of folk hero stamps, Mighty Casey was enshrined with Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Pecos Bill.

“Casey at the Bat,” I do believe, was the first time I was really swept away by, totally caught up in, a poem. Yes, these days I flip for the surrealist verse of Lamantia, and – to give but another example here – swoon for the beautiful mysteries and questions of Armantrout – but to this day I still cheer for Thayer. True, its rhyming couplets – arranged in thirteen quatrains – can get stilted, and maybe the whole thing ain’t nothin’ but humorous doggerel. But the narrative momentum is undeniable, and the way names of players are used throughout is genre-defining.

Also genre-defining in “Casey” – and more than that too – is the way the poem focuses on a series of moments, each individual pitch in the apocryphal at-bat gets its due, and indeed at points individual moments within and between each pitch are spotlighted. It’s a classic of intensification-of-a-moment-by-words, a key element of much great poetry. And maybe that’s a tie between the game and words/poems, in that intensified moments in or of time are also what baseball, abstracted out, brings to those who watch and dig the game.

Of course, the greatest great thing in Thayer’s poem is the ending, in which contrary to one’s expectations and hopes, failure reigns. The twist is a “surprise” the first time it’s heard – do you remember when that was, for you?! – and is a perfectly correct way to end the quintessential baseball poem, given that the sport considers a great player to be one who gets a hit three out of every ten times at bat; in other words, who strikes or otherwise makes an out, a la mighty Casey, the vast majority of the time.

Thayer’s final quatrain holds its conclusion to the final line, indeed, its final clause, and the brilliance and impact of that moment of failure is heightened by the lines that precede it, which anaphorically (with “somewhere” being the key repeated word) and unforgettably establish scenes of delight and fun that contrast with, and set up, the disappoint to come:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.
I gotta believe that “Casey at the Bat” remains a gateway poem, at least for young boys, opening minds to what words can do when carefully chosen and arranged. Thayer’s work, I think, permits those who hear and read it to (er, um) strike out from their imagination into the great field of poetic language.


Next up is “The crowd at the ball game” by William Carlos Williams. It’s poem XXVI in Spring and All (1923) and before going any further, how great is it that the work appears in that book, given the fresh start associations between the opening of the two respective seasons?

Spring and All
(Contact Editions, 1923)

Here’s how the poem begins:

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them—

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius—

all to no end save beauty
the eternal—
Doc Williams’ poem – it has eighteen additional couplets, and you can read it by clicking here – has generated much discussion, including in recent years. Some suggest it concerns the growing diversity of baseball fans, others find in it a criticism of the herd mentality of crowds, and still others interpret the work (and I think rightly) as ambiguous and not just about watching baseball. Professor Al Filreis’ two hundred words on the poem (click here) seems to most concisely catch all this, and more (click to go). Personally, I love the celebration, in the opening lines quoted above, of the precision of seeing, the equating of that with beauty. Doc’s diagnosis there is a home run.


Marianne Moore was supremely into baseball. In 1968, late in life, after having attended games for years, she tossed out the baseball to open the season at Yankee Stadium (see photo above). Moore also once said she’d have given much to have invented the intricate stitch pattern found on the baseball. Now that’s something only a poet could think, I do believe.

Moore’s “Baseball & Writing” (click here to read) is a well-recognized classic baseball poem, and one that has been much discussed (see in particular the 20 page analysis (pdf) linked-to here). The poem, in the words of Elaine Oswald and Robert L. Gale, “celebrat[es] her beloved Yankees but mainly compar[es] two painful arts.” It was first published in the New Yorker on December 6, 1961, and here’s the poem’s opening stanza:

Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do;
generating excitement -
a fever in the victim -
pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.
Victim in what category?
Owlman watching from the press box?
To whom does it apply?
Who is excited? Might it be I?
The mid-stanza “fever” here, via the grammar of Moore’s lines, and the rhetorical questions that end the stanza, seem to point to the players, and the poet as “the victim” who burns with fervor and intensity. But if the poet/spectator might indeed get or be excited, doesn’t that mean that the spectator of the poem, the reader, can too? I say yes indeed to that, and love that Moore tips her tricorn hat here to the ecstatic frenzy that can be brought on not only by playing in a ballgame, but by watching one and writing or reading a poem about one too!

After its opening stanza Moore’s poem, in a nimble, quick-shift mode, covers a lot of ground, incorporating the names of almost twenty individual Yankees from the early 1960s, including the well-known (Mickey Mantle), those perhaps known only to hardcore fans (for example, Tom Tresh, who she wisely suggests not be traded given that he won the top rookie award the year after she published the poem), and true obscuros (Rowland Sheldon, for example).

On my scorecard, Moore’s most marvelous set of lines are those at the start of the fourth of the poem’s seven stanzas. The lines begin with a fresh set of metaphors about a player nicknamed for the way he sometimes resembled a Hindu spiritualist, and then quickly shift to at-the-game action, including an out-of-here moment, then finish with a couple assessments by the poet:
Assign Yogi Berra to Cape Canaveral;
he could handle any missile.
He is no feather. “Strike! . . . Strike two!”
Fouled back. A blur.
It’s gone. You would infer
that the bat had eyes.
He put the wood to that one.
The agility of these lines, their surprise and the speed, is of the sort I enjoy immensely in Moore. She’s Jennie Finch quick, elegant and sure-handed as Omar Vizquel.


The next baseball poem in the line-up here today is “Great Catch” by Tom Clark. It’s included in his 1974 collection Blue (Black Sparrow Press, 1974). That book, while having only about ten poems (out of more than 60) about the sport, features a cover that has to be among the all-time tippy-top poetry-baseball images, the great (and at the time very young phenom) pitcher Vida Blue, striding right at you:

“Great Catch” concerns a particular pitch, fly ball, and catch at a particular major league game. From the players named and circumstances detailed in the poem, a little googling shows that the game that gave rise to Clark’s poem was played between the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics on July 16, 1973, at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, before a crowd of 43,571, of which Clark presumably was one. According to the box score, the Athletics lost the game 7-5, but the final score’s not at all germane to the poem, which focuses entirely and beautifully on a play made in the field by Joe Rudi, a great and under-rated player for the Athletics. Here’s Clark’s poem:
With one away
in the seventh
and Terry Crowley on base
Pina threw
a side arm curve
down and in
to Earl Williams
who golfed it
high ’n deep
to left

Joe Rudi
pedaled back
to the warning path
sidewise, watching
the towering drive
as it peaked
and began to fall

With hand propped
against the wall he
crouched, and leaped
and hung
in a bath of light
his glove
a foot above the top
              speared it!

—and he fell back down
into the sound
This poem has dang fine compression, yet lots of details and plenty of action. I count eleven verbs spread through the lines, and with each one – think intensification of the moments – serves to shift the focus of the action. It’s very cinematic, and the sparing use of the indents (just two lines) works nicely to emphasize the particular wonder of, the attention keyed by, the spectators (and thus by us readers) on the particularly superb athletic prowess of Rudi in in the outfield, at and above the wall. I also like the sensuousness of both “bath of light” (the outfield wall becomes a big tub) and especially the final couplet
—and he fell back down
into the sound
which marvelously conveys how the roar of the crowd – no doubt very loud with 43,000 plus in the house – surrounds the outfielder as he lands after his jumping catch. The near-rhyme of “down” and “sound” suggests the connection between Rudi and the fans that must have vibed through the stadium at that very moment. I give “TC” a standing O for this poem.

the illustration that accompanies “Great Catch” in Tom Clark’s Blue
“... hung / motionless [ . . . ] his glove / a foot above the top / speared it!”


Although great plays in the field happen often enough in major league games, a more common experience is something that involves those who watch in the stands: the foul ball. According to those who’ve counted, anywhere from twenty-eight to forty balls per game are fouled into the crowd. These out-of-play batted balls are sometimes scary (the screaming liner) but mostly entertaining as hell. Most who attend games enjoy the thought of possibly catching or snagging a foul as a souvenir.

The odds of getting a foul ball are slim, one in a thousand, typically, although it varies depending on where one sits. Getting one isn’t easy even when it seems to come right at you, and if the ball gets loose, watch out, it can be quite a scene.

How “quite a scene” can it be? Well, here’s the first paragraph of section XXXVII of Ron Silliman’s prose-poem You, which is a part of his longpoem The Alphabet. With regard to what can happen with a foul ball into the stands, it’ll give you a most excellent idea:

     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 seem 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.

Now, neither the other six paragraphs of this section, nor anything else in the fifty plus page You, specifically concerns baseball. So I admit I’m stretching – like McCovey used to do at first, natch – to identify the excerpt above as a baseball poem, since it in fact is one part of one section of the poem, or something like that.

But say hey, this one deserves throwing out the rule book, and (er, um) singling it out as a poem. The (er, um again, but this is actually correct) single sentence – thirteen clauses, ninety-four words – slows down a classic in-the-stands action scene, breaking it into a series of richly observed and reported moments . This folks, is an instance of old-school new precisionism! The secret to it, I think, are its eleven verbs. They keep the action going, a word-rally that goes and goes. This is a most excellent prose-poem of the ol’ ballgame.

Speaking of poetry and baseball, Silliman about a month ago was featured on a Fact-Simile Poet-Card. These wondrously fun cards – so far this year nine different ones have been issued, click here to see – are modeled on the Topps and other baseball cards that surely are familiar to many. The Fact-Simile cards picture the poet on the front, while on the back is, of course, a poem (Silliman’s has a fourteen line excerpt, a kind of sonnet, from Revelator, a newer longpoem of his).

Silliman’s Fact-Simile card front is particularly sweet. It features both a larger color photo and an inset, circular black and white portrait. This happens to mimic almost exactly the look of the baseball cards issued in 1963 by Topps. It’s a classic design, because it sets up poetic echoes between the two photos. Check out the similar look of Ron “LongPoem” Silliman’s Fact-Simile card, and the 1963 Topps cards of two players who I hope in the name of the-myth-that-is-Abner-Doubleday you’ll recognize right away:

Saturday, October 23, 2010

¡¡¡ Viva Lamantia !!!

Series III, No. 2 (June 1943)
[9" x 12"]
[Featuring “Five Poems” by Philip Lamantia]

All right, and let’s go! For the third time in the short history of this here glade, it’s Philip Lamantia Day, the anniversary of his birth (October 23, 1927), and thus an occasion to remember and celebrate the poet who died in 2005 and whose poetry – which I’ve read for decades – forever inspires.

On the two most recent anniversaries of Philip’s birth, I’ve respectively (1) surveyed about a dozen poems, by an equal number of poets, written for, to, after, and/or about Lamantia, and (2) told about a few of the many things I learned from him. This year, I take a more bibliographic bent, and take a look, an enthusiastic one, at Lamantia’s first big-time appearance in print, the publication of “Five Poems” in the June, 1943 (Series III, No. 2) issue of View.

View, edited by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler and published between 1940 and 1947, was an important American magazine. As curator and critic Michael Duncan explains, in a note published in ArtForum in January, 2003:
With a penchant for the unexpected and an unerring eye for quality, View mixed fiction and poetry with features on Max Ernst, Pavel Tchelitchew, Man Ray, Fernand Leger, and Isamu Noguchi, all of whose commissions graced its covers. View was the first little magazine to publish translations of work by Raymond Roussel, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The 1945 Marcel Duchamp issue was the first monograph on the artist . . . .

View also put an American spin on the Surrealist sensibility. Aztec and Native American poetry were featured, as well as Joseph Cornell’s worshipful paean to Hedy Lamarr. The magazine was formative for associate editor Parker Tyler – perhaps the most underrated critic in American letters. His later books on Tchelitchew, Florine Stettheimer, Hollywood film, and experimental cinema all had their seeds in View essays.

Most important, View was a quiet yet crucial force kindling kindling underground American culture. Touchstones of the decade to come like Henry Miller, Paul Bowles, Philip Lamantia, Paul Goodman, and Marshall McLuhan all published in the magazine. Its brand of poetic Surrealism in particular seems to have spilled over to the West Coast Beats. In the mid-‘50s, Los Angeles artist George Herms remembers excitedly perusing a pile of Views in Wallace Berman’s living room on Crater Lane.
Lamantia first saw View in 1942. He was 14 years old. His poetic energy – already ignited while in junior high school, where he wrote imitations of Poe and The Rubáiyát – had just been super-charged by back-to-back museum exhibitions in San Francisco (where he was born and raised) of paintings by Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró. Via the museum and public libraries, Lamantia read what he could on and of surrealism, including issues of View, VVV (another, more purely surrealist magazine), and plenty of poetry.

In early 1943, Lamantia sent a typewritten, single-spaced, and just over one page letter to View editor Charles Henri Ford. Lamantia begins, “Not to have this fact seem to important, in relation to my poetry, I state nevertheless that I am fifteen years old.” He then states that his recent verse “can be considered surrealist,” explaining why via references to such things as dreams and the indigenous realm of fantasy, and precursors and practitioners such as Rimbaud and Breton. “The words seem to lose their history,” Lamantia asserts about his poetry, “and they become free . . . .”

Lamantia then writes, “I am sending you several of my most recent, and I believe my best, poems that you may possibly want to use in View.” Lamantia explains that he does “not spring from the leisure class, in fact far from it, and therefore . . . have not as much time and energy to devote to my poetry as I would like to have.” His high school work and other matters take up his time, he says, but otherwise he confines all energy for poetry. Lamantia expresses his dedication and the desire to share his writing – necessary and beautiful impulses in all creative artists – in a most direct and fervent way:
If I am serious about any one thing, in its entirety, it is poetry. But I must be heard! I must be heard as soon as possible, for conditions as they are I will perhaps have to limit my attention to poetry in the future. But I will never stop writing it!
Lamantia in his letter also questions in some detail an editorial in the then current issue of View, asking Ford if it represents a leaning away from surrealism. He then returns to his own poetry, stating he has been previously published only in a high school anthology, and asking directly if there is a chance his work could be included in the June issue of View.

If Ford replied in writing, it has been lost to time. But we know what happened: the June View included five poems by Lamantia. The poems appear a single large (9" x 12") blue page, part of a bound-in center section of the magazine that also includes eight poems by e.e. cummings. Other contributors to the issue include Benjamin Peret (a long essay on magic and poetry, translated into English), Leon Kochnitsky (on artist Leonor Fini), Kenneth Burke (on literary theory / philosophy), Étiemble (on 16th century paintings) and Harold Rosenberg (on a new book by Wallace Stevens and a new translation of Rilke). The magazine’s cover – imaged at the head of the post – is a classic: a Man Ray solarized photo-print showing a broken chair (how does it stay upright with a leg missing?!), a piece of driftwood that somehow looks strangely human, and a pair of ballet slippers.

For Lamantia, it’s hard to imagine a nicer nation-wide debut in print. And the poems! As editors Ford and Tyler simply put it in the magazine’s Table of Contents, “View considers Philip Lamantia a discovery.” Or as Kenneth Rexroth later wrote of Lamantia, “I have never known anyone else who started out, without preliminaries, with no five-finger exercises or scales, as an achieved poet.” Here is the page, imaged from the magazine (click on it, then click again to give it a nice, clear read:

Of the five Lamantia poems in the June, 1943 View, the two most often re-published are “I Am Coming” and “There Are Many Pathways To The Garden.” Both are classics of youthful surrealism, charged imagery, cinematic energy, gothic tones, and emotional peaks. Here’s the first of these, in the full resplendency of its three stanza, sixteen line glory:

I Am Coming

I am following her to the wavering moon,
to the bridge on the far waterfront
to valleys of beautiful arson,
to flowers dead in a mirror of love,
to men eating wild minutes from a clock,
to hands playing in celestial pockets,
and to that dark room beside the castle
of youthful voices, singing to the moon.

When the sun comes up she will live at a sky
covered with sparrow’s blood
and wrapped in robes of lost decay.

But I am coming to the moon,
and she will be there in a musical night,
in a night of burning laughter,
burning like a road of my brain
pouring its arm into the lunar lake.

Just about every line there just about begs for a response in the form of a visual image or collage. The wavering moon. A bridge by the long waterfront. Valleys of beautiful arson. Flowers dead in a mirror of love. And I could post such images for you, and do the same for the rest in the poem as well. Plus add a soundtrack: youthful voices singing to the moon, a musical night, burning laughter, and much else, including the steady rhythm laid down by the anaphoric openings of the second through sixth lines. Yes, all that could be done, and I swear – I swear on the chance encounter a sewing machine and umbrella on a dissecting table – that I could do it here and now for you, dear readers.

But I will do nothing of the sort! For once here in the glade, the words – Lamantia’s words, those that he set free at age fifteen – will remain unfettered by interpretation or the analytic. It’s the anniversary of Philip’s birth – he’d be 83 today – and as such we should especially try to enjoy and celebrate his work au naturel, just as it came into this world. And so I shall, and – if so inclined – may you do so too. Just remember, if you please:

¡¡¡ Viva Lamantia !!!


Additional ¡¡¡ Viva Lamantia !!! information:

After his initial appearance in View, Lamantia – while still a teenager, in the four years spanning 1943 and 1946 – published poetry in two other issues of that magazine, as well as in VVV (which also published a long letter he wrote to Andre Breton), two issues of Hemispheres (a bilingual French-English journal edited by Yvan Goll), the first two issues of Circle (a west coast avant-garde magazine edited by George Leite in Berkeley), James Laughlin’s New Directions Annual # 9, an anthology-tribute to Henry Miller, and his own first book, Erotic Poems (Berkeley, Bern Porter, 1946). To date, the most complete collection of Lamantia’s early surrealist poetry is Touch of the Marvelous – A New Edition (Four Seasons Foundation: Bolinas, 1974).

Lamantia after his teens went on to write and publish poetry, off and on, for another approximately sixty years. Currently, The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia is in preparation, edited by Nancy Peters (Lamantia’s widow, a long-time editor at and currently co-owner of City Lights Books), Garrett Caples and Andrew Joron. The University of California Press will publish the volume, I believe in 2012. The book will include all poems previously collected in Lamantia’s books, plus many rare and difficult to find works. Among the latter will be his very first published poem, the one printed in the high school anthology that Lamantia mentions in his letter to Charles Henri Ford. That poem – titled “Ages In The Wind” – had been lost, including to Lamantia, for more than half a century until – after approximately a decade of searching and using tips given by Philip before his death – your lucky fool of a glade-keeper found a published copy (joy! joy! poetry-reading joy!) about two years ago.

Philip Lamantia
circa 1943 - age fifiteen

¡¡¡ Viva Lamantia !!!


Sunday, October 17, 2010

(The not-at-all) Simple

(Sandra) Simonds

(in San Francisco, with new poems!)

Sandra Simonds
Made From Scratch

(no place: no publisher, no date)
[self-published by the poet, 2010]
[5.75" x 8.625" | unpaginated (14 poems on 24 pages)]

About a week ago – on Saturday night, October 9, 2010, – I got myself out of the house to hear Sandra Simonds give a short (approximately 20 minute) reading, done as part of one of several dozen (yes, several dozen!) “LitCrawl” events staged that evening at various venues on or about Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Simonds’ reading took place very close to – just six city blocks – from where I live. Who’d have thunk that Simonds – who lives in Tallahassee, Florida, more than 2,600 miles away – would read less than a mile from my home? And do so just two or three days after I’d received her newest chapbook (Made from Scratch, imaged above) in the mail? And just a few months after I – ever-slow on the uptake – had finally read and fallen deeply for the poetry in Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2008), her first (and so far only) perfect bound collection?

What a confluence: poetry that excites, including some that’s new, seemingly delivered from afar to just about my front door via the person and voice of the poet. I call this sort of manifestation of poetry energy magnificent and marvelous. Praise be the spring Hippocrene!

Unfortunately, I had no camera or other recording device, and so cannot post photos, video, or audio from the reading. Nor did I take notes. But I do remember, to say the least, a few poems Simonds recited, and as it turns out they are in the new chap, as well as on-line, and I’ll discuss two of these below. These relatively new poems happen to concern, or arise from, being a new mother and having a child, and as I think you will see they bring a remarkable – fresh and complex – approach to that subject.

But before I get into the new, I’d like to tell a bit about why I was excited to hear Simonds read. As said above, earlier this year I read Warsaw Bikini, published two years ago and which collects three dozen poems, and that’s really what got me going about her writing. A few excerpts from those poems will serve, I think, to show some of what I find so interesting about Simonds’ poetry.

The first poem in Warsaw Bikini is titled “I Serengetti You” and it begins in media res, and goes in a way that made me stop and read the first stanza again, and then do so again and again, so startling are the images, the language, and the energy. Here it is, a single compound if starting in mid-stride sentence spread over seven lines:
                               like a banshee, a leprechaun, a geek
in the shuffling feet of trick neurons
                                                      limbic, I skipped
                                              town with your checkbook
rode limber sleuths through suburban felts on the flushed cheek,
                              from gill to aorta, renal to fallopian tube
                                              twirling like Mendel’s string bean.
If this is a “Song of Myself” - and I read it as such, although as in Whitman the I, the persona of the poem, should be considered as expansive, a “one” that contains multitudes – then Simonds presents herself here as a – well, what? It’s a rich mix that’s hard to pin down in prose. Intriguing and rollicking, I would say, and a tad dangerous, a magic messenger impulse at the edge emotion cross-species internal organ thought-science spirit-creature a mindful woman with mind full of mystery adventure and yes of course don’t forget Mendel’s string bean twirling. In short, these are words of a poet for whom I will enthusiastically turn the pages, and go forth wheresoever she may write me to come.

If I were to put Simonds’ lively confidence, humor and self-awareness into a small capsule of lines, then I think it would be these, lifted – probably decontextualized too – from “One Billion And One, My New Favorite Number,” another Warsaw Bikini poem:
                  . . . The moon has
her little ways, so why can’t I?

“. . . The moon has / her little ways, so why can’t I?”

I can’t think of any good answer for why Simond’s shouldn’t have her little ways, and the spirit of those ways continually enlivens her poetry. This is a spirit with much openness, confidence and weird-wonderfulness, of the kind that just sings in the following lines from yet another great Warsaw Bikini poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Papiers”:
                            . . . What’s next, century?
Give it to me. I am ready to climb your Rockies,

to wrap the Vitamin A liver in aluminum foil
and wear the snow paw of the polar bear
so no one else can touch it.
This desire and demand for whatever time and events may bring delights with its surprising combinations (how about that image in the first line after the double-space from the world of cooking and nutrition!?). Especially mind-stopping and heart-blowing in this regard– as my illustration below above reflects – is Simonds’ that final statement here of what she is ready to do, an assertion that’s full of magic and a special sense of uniqueness and purpose:

“. . . and wear the snow paw of the polar bear / so no one else can touch it.”

But there is in Simonds’ poetry another dominant energy, one very different than the kind reflected in these excerpts so far presented. This other energy similarly stems from an acute awareness and sensitivity, but is situated in anxiety, depression, doubt, deep concern, and almost despair, both about herself and the world at large. This is perhaps a necessary flip-side to Simonds’ almost wild openness and confidence, and while it often is disturbing or sad, it equally engages our readerly attention.

Consider, for example, the poem “The America You Learn From (A Poem For Grocery Workers).” In its first section Simonds describes, more than once, doing a “jig”and imagines herself as a kind of Houdini, cuffed-chained-and-straitjacketed beneath San Francisco Bay who via the undulations of her “jellyfish brain” regurgitates the keys that will permit escape.

However, this more-or-less celebratory and confident tone explicitly and emphatically shifts in the poem’s second section, as Simonds first castigates and questions herself, then takes a brutally honest inventory of where she’s at and what she sees. It’s extremely powerful, and here it is in its entirety:
        What am I talking about? I have no house.
                      I am entirely minimum wage. I am one
hundred percent punch in
        and out, sandbags under the eyes
        live from cage to cage – the ocean tides wet my
                      dog leash long esophagus
        hooked to the neck of the moon howls
        hey Missy England, it’s all the rage and
                      —thumbs up, Abu Gharib

“live from cage to cage – the ocean tides wet my / dog leash long esophagus /
hooked to the neck of the moon howls /
hey Missy England, it’s all the rage and /
—thumbs up, Abu Gharib

These lines, this poetry, disturbs, or should, with its depiction of a tied down and trapped, limiting, jumbled, and cruel world, personally and geo-politically.

Equally disturbing and sobering, and showing even more clearly the self-critical perspective that is a part of Simonds’ poetry, are the following lines, which comprise the first half of “Parable That Takes Place In Little Nathaniel’s Closet”:
Just when you throw up
your hands

and say “I’m really a horrible
person,” there’s an-

other selfsame self that
assures you you are in-
deed more horrible
than previously suspected.

How dis-
This excerpt, in addition to what it says, also shows that Simonds can flat-out write poetry. Look first at the opening couplet:
Just when you throw up
your hands
The phrase in its entirety describes an universal gesture of frustration, one perfectly appropriate to the self-criticism that follows. But before the phrase is completed, Simonds via how or where she breaks the line brings in rather directly a sickening emesis “you throw up” that sets up and underscores the nauseating self-critical observations that follow.

And with regard to the writing consider as well the hyphenated (and double-spaced) “an // other” that straddles the second and third stanzas. By that clever move Simonds shows, right there on the page, the separate parts of the self that’s central to her poem. Simonds makes her point again about the double or multi-faceted self via the almost back-to-back repetition in “selfsame self” (emphasis added) and then does it again, in the next line, through her odd-looking (but grammatically correct) repetition “you you.”

Another neat piece of poetry takes place in the next linebreak, which also features a split word: “in- / deed” permits Simonds to suggest that sometimes it’s an action (“deed”) that reveals our awfulness to ourselves.

And how about the line-break (and split word) in the concluding couplet in the excerpt above? “How dis-” it begins, and each time I see that I expect the hyphenated word to conclude with “gusting!” or “appointing!,” either of which– an expression of revulsion or frustration – would be an understandable reaction to either the thought that we are actually more horrible than we think, or the idea that we actually think that kind of thought about ourselves.

But Simonds here does not go for the obvious but instead surprises with the more analytical but entirely accurate “dis- / proportionate.” The term suggests I think the distance she feels, that we all feel, between our limits and failures and expectations, and at the same time (via the linebreak and thus the standalone “proportionate”) also suggests that the feeling of horribleness is exactly attuned to an inner state.

The final half of “Parable That Takes Place In Little Nathaniel’s Closet” comprises five couplets, and massively reinforce the sense of hyper lack of self-esteem and associated discomfort that lacerates through the opening lines. The concluding ten lines present a nightmarish vision in which yet another figure from one’s interior – “a nuisance ghost / dressed up as grandpapa” – gets recognized as yet another “you,” one who before receding announces “‘you see you’re worse than me.’” Here, the self-critical self-doubt and condemnation repeatedly mirrors itself, and with no alternative in sight, the emotional and mental state depicted has never had a more convincing, haunting, and disturbing presentation.

“. . . ‘you see you’re worse than me.’”


I walked into Simonds’ reading two Saturdays ago with all the above in mind, and as you can imagine, my excitement was extreme. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I’d just received her new chap, Made from Scratch, and the thought of fresh poems, new to my eyes, excited me even more. I went to the reading alone, and singleton in social scenes that I can be, began reading the book in the noisy wine bar while waiting for the reading to begin.

Made from Scratch is a heck of a rich title, ain’t it? Words scrawled on (scratched into) paper, I think of, maybe even Sumerians centuries ago, writing with sticks in dried mud. Or Made from Scratch as in created with but a small amount of cash, and/or quickly. Or arising from a wound. And/or, of course, the title suggests there is nothing in it that is pre-prepared or canned; everything’s fresh. Yes, I think it’s all that, and probably more.

Because Made from Scratch may not be, probably will not be, widely available given that it was published and distributed by Simonds herself (it’s not listed on her website; she kindly sent me one after I offered to buy a copy). Presumably, some of its poems will be included in Simonds’ next full-length collection, Mother Was A Tragic Girl, to be published in 2012 by Cleveland State Press.

In the meantime, the poems I discuss below – those which hit me especially deep when I heard her read them Saturday before last, and/or when I read them in the chap itself over the last two weeks – are all available on-line (links are given here, although sometimes in slightly different versions than now published).

“The Battle of Horseshoe Bend” is one of the more memorable poems in the chap, and it is, in its own way, one of several that concern having a child. I write “in its own way” because Simonds says in the poem’s first line that she “was going to write a poem about giving birth” but a few stanzas later says that instead the poem is about something else. However, despite that disavowal, there is plenty about giving birth in the poem, including almost immediately a mention of “merconium, vernix” – and you do know those terms, yes?–

– and can you please tell when you last saw those terms back-to-back, or at all, in a poem? Until someone proves me wrong, I’ll answer “never” or “most probably never” and that’s fairly incredible given the universality of these human phenomena. There’s also here “the flushed cheek of labor, how hard it is / to piss afterwards / how hard it is just to walk / to the bathroom.”) which seem to me other very salient details not often mentioned in poetry. Simonds’ poem, to me, ought to win an award just for bringing these terms into it.

But – and remember, “The Battle of Horseshoe Bend” is a poem about birth that Simonds “was going to write” – there’s also plenty else that comes into the poem, including cubix zirconium, “the cyclonic energy of / Andrew Jackson,” “government cheese, rent, debt,” “steam off the Georgia swamp on my / to work at 6am, where the egret transfixes the grass,” and the Sand Grain Plantation. The final line asserts that we’ve just read a “Poem that will never exist” and I suppose it doesn’t, but of course it does. Click here, if you please, to give it a read.


Another poem read by Simonds from Made from Scratch (its the final one in the chap) again concerns having a child – actually, it reaches back to the moment of conception – and is evocatively titled, “Landscape Made From Egg and Sperm.” It’s 50 lines long, set in Yosemite, addressed directly to her son (“. . . you / were conceived here, Ezekial, fifty / feet off the Trail of / Broken Ankles”), and was published in Poetry this past summer (please click here to read).

Here are the poem’s final twenty-one lines, an excerpt that begins with a tremendous speculative meditation on the inception of a life, and then opens into an equally, maybe even more tremendous meditation on what such an inception may, or may not, signify:
                    I imagine the second
                    before you took, before
                    the cells began to split,
                    before that flint
                     was struck, before the dna
                    began to twist,
                               that a colorless emptiness
                                      suddenly inverted
                    and told the world that, he too,
                                      once had a mother.

                                     But there is
                                      no nest of leaves. Nothing
                    stops. The clock in the glacier
                      still ticks above us
                          and on our skin
              there were enormous ants, the segments
                                       of their bodies
                                       like black droplets of paint
                                       pushed very close
                                       against each other
                      but still not touching, yet
                                       taking their work with them—
                                       taking away their dirt world .
Simonds briefly discusses and then recites “Landscape Made From Egg and Sperm” on a recent Poetry podcast (click here, start the audio, then jump to 8:00 minutes in). She comments:
. . . the idea behind the poem is that we make these children and they’re everything to us and yet in the grand scheme of things nothing. It’s unfair to see them as the extreme special exception yet at the same time it’s unfair not to. So when you have children you are put into this sort of terrifying position.
I believe this ambivalence, the dichotomy between the frightening difficulty of coming to terms with that which is everything and nothing, must be particularly acute for a new mother. Simonds’ courage here, in the telling of her feeling, is inspiring. This is not at all a simple binky, lullaby, and skylarks singing view. I’ll never forget – these images locked in as soon as she read them aloud two Saturdays ago – the key phrases in the poem’s final lines, which provide incredible mental pictures of the big and little wheels that turn in our world even as the miracle of life takes place between us:

“The clock in the glacier / still ticks above us . . . ”

“there were enormous ants, the segments / of their bodies / like black droplets of paint”


Another poem from Made from Scratch read here in San Francisco by Simonds, “Solipsism As Maternal Instinct,” also – as its title directly suggests – concerns having a child. This poem is also available on line in an earlier, and slightly different, version (click here).

The idea in the poem’s title is provocative: motherhood involves an inherent or unavoidable tendency to believe that the care, concern, and love of and given to one’s child, or maybe even the mother’s mind, is the only thing that can be certain to exist, and that all the rest, the external world and others, is unknowable and possibly an illusion. Here again I can well imagine how this might happen, even while acknowledging I can’t really ever say.

The poem itself, in the first four of its five sections, presents a kind of yin and yang of the experience of Simonds in the months after giving birth. “For a while, everyone loved me” she begins, and then Simonds describes her confidence, her certainty in her beauty and the joy in her body, how she “nursed my child in public” and “It was like my body / was one big eye, opening and shutting.” That last image, in particular is incredible, a snapshot of a fully expansive flesh-and-blood consciousness.

But the euphoria does not last. The come-down, the change – it takes place about two-thirds through the poem – still kicks my gut, just as it did when I first heard Simonds read it, and just as it does every time I’ve read it since. It stuns the most in the fourth stanza, which begins with a simple statement regarding a physical change and then things rapidly get a lot worse:
            Then my milk dried up. My husband
              failed his paternity
              test and left. (We have not seen him since
              July 18, 2009 so if anyone
                 knows where he is, please
              email me. $200 reward.) Then all my friends
                     followed suit, like Annie who
                                who left a note on my doorstep
                              that said “Can you
                   please return my DVD of Beaches
                                and those onesies I gave
                                you. I’m pregnant again.”
Of course, I don’t really know how much of this is actually true, particularly the (going old school here) Peyton Place like or (even older school) Faulkner-ish details of the presumed father discovering he’s not, then abandoning the relationship. The specificity of the parenthetical facts – the date it all went down – suggest that it’s all real, and the request for help and posted reward there are either the saddest things I’ve read in a poem in a good long time or a twisted stab of humor (or maybe both). The rest of the other details in the stanza above, concerning the friend who asks for things back also seems very real. The sense of a mother isolated, with nothing else, is profound.

The final stanza first presents and then concerns an image of Simonds’ child playing in exersaucer, a modern day baby walker and activity center, in which the infant/toddler stands in the center of ring atop which are plenty of on-board toys, often with sound effects:
              My son jumps up and down in the second-
                        hand exersaucer that I’ve set up in
                                   the living room.
                                                               The air is composed
                                of beaks and hooves, squawks,
                                                neighs, unraveling DNA.
              “You’re brilliant,” these plastic
              farm animals say, their primary colors
                                made in God’s image.
Simonds’ focus here on, the return of her focus to, the child corresponds to, is further proof of, the “solipsism = maternal instinct” equation of the poem’s title. Against all the desolation, mom’s reality is found watching, and thinking of, her son.

But you know what? I myself find a reality, an inspired one, in this final image. No doubt my response is not the equal of Simonds as mother, but still I insist it is strong. While the isolation presented in the first excerpt above is profound, so too is the affirmation and optimism in this final stanza.

The shift here from desolation to a kind of ebullience seems a perfect example of a key quality of Simond’s poetry, which Andrew Joron (in the afterword to this year’s updated edition of The Sun At Night, his terrific survey of transformations of surrealism in American poetry over the last approximately half-century) describes as a “fierce and rampant negativity that suddenly veers sideways to display a pataphysics of redemption, wickedly wise.”

I certainly felt a kind of redemption, along with affirmation and much else, when I heard Simonds read her final stanza aloud. It may seem goofy, but I too feel in the described sounds of her kid’s toys the same can-it-be, yes-it-is message of brilliance that she hears. This possibility or vision of affirmation and hope may seem simple, but against the emptiness that preceded it, and because of the freshness of the image – the sounds of “plastic / farm animals” on an “exersaucer” who ever thought of that, come on?!! – I find it complex, utterly convincing, and unforgettable. A well known tradition asserts that “a little child shall lead [us],” and here I say it’s true, at least as presented by the creative and skilled hand of Simonds in this poem.

“‘You’re brilliant,’ these plastic / farm animals say . . .”


Sunday, October 10, 2010

What you see is . . .

(just the start of !)    . . .  what you get!

Andrew Topel
(Mayne Island, British Columbia: Perro Verlag, 2010)
[edition of 60]
[5.5" x 7" | unpaginated (25 pages / 25 poems)]

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Andrew Topel
2010 Calendar
(No place: Fact-Simile Editions, 2010)
[edition of 100]

[calendar design by Travis MacDonald]

[6.25" x 11" | spiral bound]

Readers of visual poetry – including those who create it – might rightly wonder what in the name of the gods of intermedia is going on here in the glade.

Since this blog began in October 2008, there have been more than 100 posts. Only four mention or discuss visual poetry. There was an August 2009 post on Adeena Karasick’s Amuse Bouche, which has among its treats visual poems featuring large-sized commas. A post in October 2009 includes a short comment on a visual poem in the upgraded edition of Christian Bok’s EUNOIA. In November 2009, I briefly mentioned how the poet David Melnick, my freshman year college English professor, taught Eugene Gomringer’s visual poems. And then last month I wrote about Joseph Mosconi’s Word Puzzles.

Pretty paltry, I admit.

This post today can’t fix the past, but maybe at least gets me going towards making things right. The focus here, towards the end of the post, is Andrew’s Topel’s Letters, Patterns, and Structures, an eye-catching and mind-bending set of visual poems published this year. I also give a shout-out to visual poetry from recent years by Jessica Smith, Geof Huth, derek beaulieu, and Nico Vassilakis; this work has similarly caught and stayed with me.

But first – hey, in writing this one up, I naturally took another look at many of the classic visual poems of the past, and re-read many of the now-classic collections – permit me to take a quick walk through the visual poetry basics. Maybe I can provide a bit of a feast for your eyes and mind, and especially for your mind-eye!

. . . your mind-eye

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Visual poetry – aka, these days at least, VisPo or vispo – has a long history, particularly if “shaped poems” are considered (and they should). Such poems can be identified back through the centuries, way back, including for example (click on images to enlarge):

(circa 300 BCE)
[sorry for the slightly skewed image];

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George Herbert
“Easter Wings”

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and (of course):

Guillaume Apollinaire
Il Pleut” [“It Is Raining”]

[a beautiful water streaming window-pane!].

Excellent and important collections and discussions of shaped and patterned poetry can be found in Charles Boltenhouse, “Poems In The Shape of Things: A Survey 300 B.C. to A.D. 1958,” in
Art News Annual XXVIII (1959); Shaped Poetry (Arion Press, 1981), with Glenn Todd, Editor, Shaped Poetry: A Suite of 30 Typographic Prints (San Francisco: The Arion Press, 1981); and Dick Higgins, Pattern Poetry (Albany : State University of New York Press, 1987). See also on-line at UbuWeb [click here] links to a dozen very early (1506-1726) visual poems.

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VisPo also has at its back various traditions of typographical innovations, particularly those in the decades starting from around 1900. These include, perhaps most notable in poetry, Mallarme’s “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard ” [A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”] (1897):

two pages from “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard

There are also the many works from the the Futurist, Bauhaus, Dada, and other avant garde movements (e.g., Karel Teige in Czechoslovakia), in approximately the first third of the 20th century:

the “R” page from Abeceda [Alphabet] (1926)
Vitězslav Nezval (poetry)
Karel Teige (design and typography)
Milča Mayerová (dance)

Abeceda [Alphabet] (1926)

For more on the typographic tradition, see Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1994), and Willard Bohn, The Aesthetics of Visual Poetry, 1914-1928 (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1993).

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In the two decades plus after World War II, there was, no doubt about it, an explosion of visual poetry, much of it contemporaneous with other intermedia creative work, including Fluxus. Visual poetry in the late 1960s was blessed with two epoch-making anthologies in English:

Emmett Williams, Editor
An Anthology of Concrete Poetry
(New York: Something Else Press, 1967)

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Mary Ellen Solt, editor
Concrete Poetry: A World View
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968 / 1970)

These two anthologies each featured approximately eighty poets (many appeared in both), including dozens from outside the USA. Taken together, the books have more than 600 pages of poetry and commentary. The commentary in the Solt-edited anthology is particularly valuable: a fifty page introduction/overview by Solt (available on-line, click here), and twenty double-columned pages of manifestoes and statements by poets (some of those, including four by Gomringer, are available on-line, here, here, here, and here).

It’s not possible here to provide an overview of the range of vispo in these books. However, permit me to present a few favorites (and see also the Solt poem “Forsythia” on the cover of her anthology, imaged above):

Augusto de Campos
“o novello òvo”

[acrostic word-link brilliance]
[get out yr Spanish-English dictionary!]

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Franz Mon
[thin columns, bold design, and
what does it “say”? Compare the psychedelic
lettering of 1960s rock posters]

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Jiří Valoch
“Homage o Ladislav Novák”
[an optical poem with a “shivering
microstructure,” in the poet’s words.]

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Seiichi Niikuni
[the two characters here = river and sand-bank, respectively]

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Pierre and Ilse Granier
“Text for a Building”
[excellent full-screen flicker here!]
[and perfect 16:9 wide-screen ration!]

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Mary Ellen Solt
“Moonshot Sonnet”
[“made by copying the scientists’ symbols
on the first photos of the moon in the
New York Times”]

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Ferdinand Krivet
from “modulo”
[click on image, then click again to enlarge, to see the words and letters]

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Since the 1960s, visual poetry seems to have never let up. For my eyes, the ne plus ultra of the last half century in vispo is Steve McCaffery’s Carnival, a two-volume work – a total of 24 individual poems – in which each poem is 8.5" x 11" in size; however, the poems in each volume (i.e., each set of 12) also fit together, such that two giant (and beautifully mysterious) panels are formed. See Carnival – The First Panel: 1967-70 (Toronto: Coach House Books, 1973) and Carnival - The Second Panel: 1970-75 (Toronto: Coach House Books, 1978), each of which is a tear-out-the-pages (they are perforated), assemble-it-yourself book.

Carnival, in McCaffery’s words from the preface, is “a multi-panel language environment, constructed largely on the typewriter and designed ultimately to put the reader, as perceptual participant, within the center of his language.” Images from both volumes (or panels) of of Carnival, including individual pages and each in its respective conglomerated and glorious entirety, are available on-line (click here). But here are two of the twenty-four pages (click images to enlarge):

Steve McCaffery
Carnival Panel I, part 6

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Steve McCaffery
Carnival Panel II, part 7

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VisPo today seems stronger – more vibrant – than ever. Much work can be easily found on the web (google away!), and there are plenty of blog posts (e.g., and just last week, on punctuation-based vispo, or, from a few years back, a listing of (contemporary) women who have worked in the genre). There are also micro-zines (e.g., derek beaulieu’s Speechless (available on-line, click here), on-line journals (see for example Renegade) and not too long ago (November 2008), a special section in Poetry magazine that presented work of a dozen contemporary vispo practitioners. There’s also an annual text festival in England that’s heavy with vispo work, and even a vispo adaption of a Notorious B.I.G. rap (and you have been clicking through on each of these, yes dear readers?). Perhaps most impressive, there are even super-collectors, by which I mean the incredible Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry, which – click here and scroll down – has hundreds of images on-line and is searchable).

There’s no way I can survey all that’s currently going on. But here are four poets who in addition to Andrew Topel have in recent years big-time lit my fuse with their visual work:

Jessica Smith
[untitled (circa 2007)]
[approximately 4" x 2.5"]
[“The act of awaking [:]Wake [:] the tracks left on the waters surface by a ship”]

This work was one of two visual poems that comprised an entire special edition issue of
FourSquare, a micro-zine edited by Smith from circa 2006 to this year (and maybe still). This particular issue was distributed in or around 2007 (unfortunately, this particular issue has no date at all). The calligraphic beauty in the poem above, the curves and crossed lines, the varying sizes and placements of letters, can’t be denied. This visual and semantic representation (it seems to me) of hypnopompic dream-traces is a lovely imagistic gem.

The second poem in this
FourSquare special edition is also handwritten by Smith, but is something else entirely:

Jessica Smith
[untitled (circa 2007)]
[ 8" x 8"]

Eight inches square is a pretty good size considering all that is in this one. The size and density give this poem a miniature getting-close-to-epic scale. It’s a magnificent example of Smith’s all-over approach in these kinds of works (she has done a few others, although none have been collected in a single publication yet). This particular poem looks geologic, sedimentary layers of words, embedded fossils-like clusters, etc., almost as if it presents a cut-away of a lexical deposit that’s accrued over time. Or it can be seen as currents of language, liquid that flows on the page. This poem can be read – click on the image, then click again to enlarge – but it ain’t easy, and that’s part of the brilliance here. Every time I read it, it is new, because there’s so much going on: the mind can’t possibly take it all in at once. In this way, it reminds me a bit of the felt-tip pen drawings of Bruce Conner, which coincidentally also tend to fill the page:

Bruce Conner

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Geof Huth
“Eyechart Poem 13” (2009)

This is one of 27 similar looking works by Huth in his book titled – you can guess this, eh? –
Eyechart Poems (Buffalo: P-Queue, 2009). I made a mistake not including this one in my year-end round-up. I definitely “overlooked” this one. The eyechart may be mostly a doctor’s office prop these days, but it’s still known to all. Huth’s poems wittily and wisely play with the idea that the idea “behind” the eyechart is for the patient (here reader) to see how much s/he can see on the dang thing. And in the poem above, we struggle to make out the various language, mathematical, typographic, and other symbols. Unlike at the optometrist, there are no right answers. It’s all up to you. I might have wished for more frequent hints of semantic meaning, but still, these are memorable fun.

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derek beaulieu (the lower case, I do believe, is how he prefers it), is prolific, and I enjoy seeing what’s new in his visual work. The poem above, published in a 20-page chapbook in August, is a wide-screen (it’s presented across two pages) Letraset wonder. It reads as an aerial view of a geography traversed by language-trails bordered by amusement parks and energy centers (the dots and other circular “structures”). Alternatively, I read this as some sort of guitar, or musical instrument – the upside down run of W’s acting, at first glance, as a kind of neck – that plays a wild melange of tunes.

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Here’s a poem that presents the mysteries of H, S, G, and O, some of them largely inverted. The great John Olson wrote of this poem, “Little ‘h’s dribble down from big ‘H’s, bending like willow branches in a light breeze. A mound of S’s, enlarging then diminishing like a Doppler shift in an arc over a junkyard of tumbled g’s and o’s, lifts then drops one’s eyes in a tickling sibilance of insinuation.” I also see thoughts, the soup of thought, with ideas just starting to bubble, or trailing off. Olson used “wild,” frenzied,” and “explosive” to more generally characterize the poems in
STARINGS, and I agree.

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There are 25 poems in Andrew Topel’s Letters | Patterns | Structures chapbook, with 13 of them repeated, in a much larger size, in the Fact-Simile 2010 calendar pictured at the head of this post. The boldness, intensity and inventiveness of Topel’s work captivates me. I just keep looking, and thinking. The following poem, untitled (as are all in the book) is the first one in the chap, and serves as the cover image on the calendar. It blazes with angles and edges, excitement and energy:

The heavy use of symmetry in this poem, and its reliance on the frission between dark and light (black and white), reminds me of some of – yes, here I go again – Bruce Conner’s art. This time, I see the inkblot drawings Conner made in the last thirty or so years of his life. A specific analog to Toppel’s poem, to my mind, is the Conner splatter inkblot drawing immediately below, or at least the center part of it. I see the same strong central line in both works, and both have an overall look that permits the imagination to flow most anywhere:

Bruce Conner

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And here’s another pairing, of a Topel poem and a Conner work, this a different kind of inkblot drawing; both have a complexity and symmetry that attracts and holds attention:

Bruce Conner
(October 23, 1993)

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Some of Toppel’s beauties provide a meaning of the kind I can put into words:

In this one, I see the “Y’s”cartwheeling around and around and around. It’s a big ol’ beautiful endless circle, in other words, of why why why why why. The never-ending mystery of life, in other words, creating its own momentum and energy. Keep the mother rollin’!

This one is built of question marks, commas, exclamation points, semi-colons, plus the letter a, repeated twice. These elements are not arrayed so that there is a left/right symmetry (the image is flipped along the mid-line vertical axis). I find a pair of narratives in this poem, or a double-description of an object, starting in either case with the indefinite article “a”. There is in either instance suspense and surprise (the question marks and exclamation points), and pauses short and long (commas and semi-colons). Some of the mysteries are interlocked, others merely touch on one another, and many elements are difficult to tell apart, just like most things in life (and most really good poetry!). Most beguiling to me are twin 45 degree angles of the two opposing “arms” at the upper right and bottom left of the work. These take the mind off into the “white” or space of the page and give off strange, slightly off-kilter vibe that keeps, and will keep, this poem fresh.

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Endnote: Andew Topel maintains a blog, VVIISSIIOONNSS, in which he presents, as he terms it, “solo & collaborative wrEYEting & visualanguage” (click here to go). Some of the work from Black on White on Black (2010), a series of visual poems by Topel even more recent than Letters | Patterns | Structures, was posted less than two weeks ago and can be seen by clicking here.
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