Transitory Poetics is a monthly review series by Toby Altman focused solely on current and upcoming chapbooks. You can read the introduction here.
For this month’s column, I reviewed four chapbooks published in 2015 by The Song Cave. Edited by Alan Felsenthal and Ben Estes, The Song Cave is a relatively new press. During its short run, though, it has established itself as one of the leading publishers of experimental writing, curating an exemplary group of poets and projects. Unlike many presses, The Song Cave has dedicated itself both to the book and the chapbook, emphasizing the centrality of both to contemporary writing. The press favors a spare and uniform style of book design. Its full-length books are printed in a standard size—7.5 inches long and 5 inches wide—with monochrome covers, punctuated by black and white illustrations and white type faces for the title and author lines. Their chapbooks are similarly uniform, printed in saddle-stapled pamphlets, 8.5 inches long and 5.75 inches wide. But their covers are much more dynamic, with brightly colored collages, photographs, and illustrations. Their design aesthetic suggests that the chapbook is a space of dynamism and possibility, against the relative formality of the book. And their chapbooks consistently capitalize on that sense of possibility. Wildly diverse in terms of form and approach, the chapbooks below are nonetheless uniformly adventurous in search of new—and forgotten—futures for experimental writing.
Occasional Poems by Rangi McNeil
The Song Cave, 2015
Wordsworth says, famously, that poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.” It’s a dumb definition, for lots of reasons: the way that it assumes that a person is originally integrated or contained; the way that it disqualifies poetry’s social function, its capacity to flatter, cajole, and persuade. The romanticism Wordsworth champions, with its emphasis on deeply felt spontaneous expression, excises its transactional character. Rangi McNeil’s gorgeous, precise chapbook, Occasional Poems, stands as a kind of restitution—a return to poetry’s historical capacity for the occasional. The chapbook is the first collection of McNeil’s work since 2003’s The Missing (Sheep Meadow Press). Its poems are sparse, even fragile: carefully deployed observations of a carefully observed reality. His poem “Houston,” for example, reads in its entirety:
There was always more sun than rain.
Hot hot heat & almost no cold.
I sold my sperm. Rode my three-speed
in a red patterned sarong.
Twilight spread, across clouds
of soot & smog, its delicate blush.
Sometimes, I closed my eyes.
After the first descriptive couplet, the poem is entirely detail: acts, observations, each of which invites a sense of lushness, and danger—the closed eyes of the speeding bicyclist.
In these moments, McNeil feels like a latter-day objectivist, cousin to someone like George Oppen in his capacity to express the experience of urban life through fragmentary capture of its details. Like Oppen, McNeil understands that life in the modern city forecloses the possibility of narrative coherence, the strong articulation of a comprehensible reality. Reality, for McNeil, is a series of shards, accumulating and overlapping, as in his election-year poem “Delegates.” The poem begins with the rituals of online sexual performance: “…I considered / measuring my morning erection. Base to tip, / like the married men I meet online request.” But it turns, without segue, into an account of the news—Hillary Clinton has won a primary; more soldiers are dead in Iraq. He concludes, “Once, I was afraid the world would end quick & furious / as a match. And now, I fear it won’t.” The couplet is not quite a sententiae—McNeil is too cagy for a simple twist of morality. But it does share something with those Elizabethan poems that turn in their final moments toward summary, recapitulation, generalization, presented as a prize, won from careful observation and scrupulous practice of poetic craft. Similarly, his heart-breaking poem “Samson” catalogues a series of deaths and injuries, frank and matter and fact; in the final lines, McNeil adds, “Nothing betrays like the body. Nothing? / Not love? No, not even.” In these moments, his poems become persuasive, even argumentative: they not only observe but draw conclusions, and they want you to share those conclusions. This is an occasional poetics, in the old sense. Even as McNeil’s poems overflow with powerful feeling, they reveal their own rhetorical character, their desire to persuade: they not only want to observe a world but to change it. As he writes in “The Waiting Room,” “I’m desperate for a reduction in swelling, / an increase in mobility. Relief.”
May Double as a Whistle by Elizabeth Zuba
The Song Cave, 2015
Elizabeth Zuba’s May Double as a Whistle is the kind of chapbook that deepens, vertiginously, with rereading. It rewrites biblical and mythological narratives of flood, using the rhetoric and resources of post-language experimental poetry. Noah and Deucalion, Ziusudra and Manu, engage in epigrammatic dialogues about a world submerged, a world which has lost its principles of organization, its grammar:
Manu: The way a ball on a shelf exerts a gravitational pull
d on the shelf and the shelf on it.
Ziusudra: Resistance or submission.
Manu: The same!
Noah: A mass of the information.
In a world where resistance and submission are the same, linked to each other inextricably, what are the possibilities of political action—or of individual agency? Zuba poses these questions without answering them. Indeed, her chapbook tends to complicate questions instead of answering them. A single unascribed line, which occupies a full page, follows the exchange between Manu, Ziusudra, and Noah, quoted above: “Were it otherwise, your image would not move my own.” This might be a statement about desire, or it might be a statement about responsibility: in either case, the collapse of resistance into submission becomes the condition of mutuality and pleasure, the very stuff of ethics.
Zuba’s miniature dialogues transpire without stage directions—in an apparently abstract, or at any rate, undefined space. It falls to verse itself to map and describe the world. Alongside the dialogues, the chapbook marshals brief snatches of verse, which describe in fragmentary detail the conditions aboard an ark, Noah’s perhaps:
Wringing the masts
ringing in earthly knitteries in the company of our pilgrimage
so much like waving grasses. A waking snowbell. The yawing geese.
May double as a whistle.
As Zuba depicts it, life aboard the ark is vibrantly multi-species, a conference of birds and quadrupeds. Describing this flock of living things, the human figure recedes, looses its centrality as an organizing or governing principle. Concurrently, the language of her writing begins to crease and decompose, as though, in the absence of human intervention, language itself reveals its stressed material. Hence, for instance, the many kinds of [w]ringing that open the lines quoted above. The animals aboard the ark seem to exist in a condition of sympathy and reciprocity with the natural world. They are “so much like waving grasses”; Manu comments, “Look how the animals rock their heads in time with the waves.” They use the rhythms of the inanimate, the natural, to regulate their bodies—they seem on the verge of becoming the world around them. As the mythological figures try, using various analogies and literary antecedents, to make sense of their suddenly flooded world, the animals model a different kind of response—a response which is perhaps poetic: mimesis, or, performance, the transformation of the self through repetition and imitation. Zuba’s poems too participate in this project: in the depth and difficulty of their language, they seem to be throwing off the constraints of understanding to embody the world instead. This is a poetics of the flood—timely enough, in a world which seems to be increasingly flooded, flooding.
In Any Map by Emily Sieu Liebowitz
The Song Cave, 2015
Emily Sieu Liebowitz’s poems articulate a sense of historical claustrophobia, even panic: “The past is too tight,” she writes. In a sense, this is more or less the situation of contemporary experimental writing: hemmed as it is by an avant-garde tradition which is, simultaneously, liberating and overbearing. This leaves us with a dilemma: should we invest in the opportunities that the past authorizes? Or should we attempt to break from it, to establish new principles, ways of living and working? In Any Map, Liebowitz’s first chapbook, proposes a surprising answer: why not do both? Why not have our avant-garde cake and eat it too? Her poems are deeply literate in the history of twentieth century avant-garde writing—she digests the entire objectivist tradition, beginning with Zukofsky and extending to Nathaniel Mackey and Rachel Blau du Plessis. In the chapbook’s first poem, “Days That Break,” for example, she takes up Mackey’s bleary narrativity:
Extinction we are, exterior bridge sight I am,
d earthquake constructing commuters, together
d it was, lonely west we were, middle
sending space to subdue
With an obsessive logic the poem returns to the verb “to be.” Yet all these propositions about what “we are” or “I was” fail to produce a coherent set of characters or actions. Instead of a clean, well-kept, liberal subject, Lieobwitz gives us a howling, vacant collectivity that refuses narrative and subjectivity. This is the rhetoric of environmental devastation, the poetics of unchecked human expansion, in which the lyric “I” becomes, “a disengaged prison, halfway hotels, hilltop grocers…I fissures” rather than “the large forest we were.”
I hope these quotations give a sense of the velocity of Liebowitz’s writing, the way it cascades down the page. This is not writing that pauses to savor an image or a thought. It is writing that transpires at the speed of an always-on network, throwing off brilliant sparks as it scrolls endlessly. In part, Liebowitz produces this speed through a prodigious and inspired use of the sentence fragment: her poems stage collisions between fragments of language, spurring the eye to race down the page. But she also uses more traditional devices like alliteration, breaking the rules of propriety to indulge in the pleasure of repeated sound. In “Moon Conspiracy,” she writes,
d The tides tormented twitching
eddy twirls, ridden evenings to sleep time.
Water possibilities make me tired, watching
weather through an interned aquifer.
In moments like these, her writing becomes music—an orchestration of consonants and vowels into their implicit capacity for sound, speed, and melody. It might be tempting to map out the avant-garde genealogy of a moment like this: Robert Duncan + Gertrude Stein + … =. But I think that would ultimately miss the point—and the promise—of Liebowitz’s writing. She writes through the history of the avant-garde with such energy and inspiration that its clotted possibilities become freshly pliable, sites of possibility. If this is an act of necromancy, it is a kind of deathly magic appropriate to our world, its endemic destruction, drought and flood. “Expansion of dryland farming is an effigy of my year,” she writes in “I Am Always Leaving to Gather the News.” Liebowitz writes against this rote expansion of drought, of the present. It is only by remaking the past, Liebowitz suggests, that we can begin to imagine an unclouded future—or, at least, a future which is more than awful extension of the present.
Correa Busca Perra Perdida / Leash Seeks Lost Bitch by Gabriela Jauregui
Images by Camilla Wills and Allison Katz
The Song Cave, co-published with Sexto Piso, 2015
Correa Busca Perra Perdida poses a number of intractable bibliographic questions. Who, for instance, is its author? Above, I listed Gabriela Jauregui, but the chapbook is in fact a collaboration between Jauregui and the visual artists Allison Katz and Camilla Wills, which draws from, comments on, and recapitulates their 2013 show Perra Perdida. The chapbook documents that exhibition—sort of—by reprinting a series of gloriously sloppy digital collages, which sometimes advertise for a lost dog. But, as Katz and Wills note at the end of the chapbook, these collages were assembled a year after the exhibition—they do not exactly recapitulate the exhibition, but expand it, according to a viral logic. Nor could they recapitulate the exhibition, because it was, itself, multiple: “Perra Perdida, was a series of posters…Down the hall from the gallery, in an empty bedroom, the posters were translated, with a loss of detail, as a mural onto a rough plaster wall covering almost the entire room in decoration, painted using a traditional cactus base with raw pigment.” The origin of the chapbook—and Jauregui’s text—is itself multiple, unstable, divided: as result, her text is marginalia in a chain of marginalia, which comment on each other rather than referring to an authoritative original. Under such textual conditions, categories like “author” or “visual artist” or “collaborator” begin to break down: it might be more accurate to think of Katz, Wills, and Jauregui as vectors through which the unstable series of repetitions which is this text pass and expand. As Katz and Wills write in their end note:
The missing animal pushes content to the margins; that which is at the centre is missing: she, bitch. We announce a search, and find the driving force. The dog is always, already, lost. Through the persistence of repetition, this trauma is reclaimed as a source of pleasure…forget the pet.
In their work, repetition becomes an engine of transformation, capable of dismantling misogynistic constructions of gender: “she, bitch.” Working from the constraining reality of gender hierarchy, it releases a mobile, sourceless pleasure. Much the same might be said about the effect of their work on the relationship between languages. The first section of the chapbook is in Spanish, followed by Katz and Wills’ multilingual collages; English only emerges in the final section. (Jauregui performed the translation herself, but the chapbook cannily refuses to say which language was translated). English becomes an appendix, a supplement: even as translation extends the chain of repetitions that constitutes the project, it also playfully inverts the economy of literary prestige.
What about the dog that we are supposed to forget? How does the writing approach the absence at its center? Jauregui’s text describes in fractured, obsessive detail the chapbook’s titular object, the leash that seeks:
Restriction. Control. Cord. Metal or leather distance to the neck. Encounter between hand and body: training. Leathered obedience. Braided softness. Nylon is ordinary. Even a harness. Even a ring. Knots that slip for greater agility. Retractable prosthesis. The law of the halter, of the rein, pulling…
In these clipped notes, the dog and its owner recede: the raw materiality of the leash occupies the center of Jauregui’s poetic attention. It is, as she writes later, “a slippage that precisely undoes the differences between a dog and its owner.” Like translation itself, the leash is an emblem of linkage and of hierarchy. Like the chapbook, the writing imagines the link independent of the thing it secures and the hierarchy it supports, an object suddenly liberated for its own capacity to produce and distribute material pleasure. Writing is a liberation of the leash. This act of liberation, this extended meditation on the leash’s materiality and pleasure, is, of course, a small allegory for the chapbook itself. Through its repetitions, its different languages, kinds of writing and objects, Katz, Wills and Jauregui produce an exemplary object: their work is liberated from the imperatives of the gallery or the poetry press, a shifting bibliographic crisis which, in its very difficulty, demands intense, sustained, unplanned thinking, reading, and viewing. This releases pleasure from genre and object, letting it pursue its own wild course.