“There’s a whole coterie of “experimental” types who will lap this stuff up, and the more undigested the better. But it’s that sentiment itself that’s pre-masticated, puked from beak to beak since Charles Mamma Bird Bernstein first barfed with unusual force” [Michael Lista in a review of Thou].
Do I agree?
But first, a preemptive set of convulsive Echoes that these three Book Thug titles share (to varying extents) apart from Bernstein:
Gertrude Stein, bp Nichol, Nicole Brossard, Rae Armantrout, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Lucky in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, finely crafted pastries with repetitive cream in them and at the core an incomprehensible shoe, John Cage, Amiri Baraka, Un Chien Andalou (1929), Elizabeth (1998), La Monte Young’s drone layerings, Virginia Woolf, Lynn Heijinian.
#1 – Thou by Aisha Sasha John (2014)
Joan Retallack, in an article on experimental poetry in Jacket magazine, reminds us of Stein’s reminder that “it is the things we repeat that provide us cues to our bottom-most nature.”All of these poets undertake the mesmeric and/or irritating practice of reiteration, for John it is “physical” that is at the core of her construct, while for Carr it is “gave her attention” and for ridley, “Your Darling.” At first, I was irked by John’s style, which is composed of direct statement, repetition, slang phrases such as “Let’s go haz a cheeseburger,” and a tracery of feminist/race-based stances: “Who are you/to me/tonight, Black History Month?” or “I said I understand that here the women/don’t perform girliness.” But after awhile, the pieces ground their rhythms into me and while I still didn’t really know how to address my perspective on them as texts per se (I hear she performs the work admirably), I did comprehend the motivation for such ragged discourse, the vertiginous dances with language and its environs as expressed by such shifts as, “I have so much faith in the cream of the world in its/spasms and cries…I could take my bra off and/put it back on again after…/one glass of spirits with citron soda/…Come and take down the motherfucking veil, brother.” As John herself admits, “I just wanted to say/there’s no salvation here” as simply she mostly desires to effect, “a different relationship to [her] stories.”
What Stumbles: Whether I like a book or not, I try to read it according to how well I think it achieved the aims it seems to have hoped for. When a book does not seek to communicate, nor to craft a decent poem, but simply to range through tangible and psychological landscapes on the warped skateboards of phrases, then it is a little harder to gauge whether achievement is even a word in this discourse. No, it likely isn’t. I don’t think snippets like “I saw the stars/and I came after them./They are/many raisins” does anything meaningful or meaningless however. This type of vague, limping pseudo-surrealism I simply find a waste of paper. If Thou had been shorter than 160 pages maybe the aural energy would have been more spring-loaded and capable of better entrancing its reader to entrained entrance.
#2 – Here in There by Angela Carr (2014)
What Shines: The prose poem chunks of text in the first three sections: “Signs of Interest”, “Currency” and “Liquidity” are visually striking and enjoyable to read as the Iris (an eye/I of course) figure shifts her gaze and emphasis on objects and concepts, beginning with a relentless incising of what the multi-tasking fragmentary being does: “Iris gave her attention to the news…Iris gave her attention to writing letters…Iris gave her time to relatives” gracefully enlarging the rhythm and narration to include an I and we, a variety of conveyances like trains and of topographies from urban glass lands to post-flood terrains. The last line of these three parts sums up intent accurately: “On hold, we arrived at a disjuncture, not a point.”
What Stumbles: The last two segments, set in phrases, one attending to the repeated “name” and the other to the temporal marker “just after” are weaker as less visceral and detailed. I find for experimental poetry to engage me it still needs to locate itself in a sensorial world, and if it lodges itself too lengthily in the barren realms of statements like: “We saw money alone and we saw money connecting needs/We saw the noun of money form from the connecting and/that was the first noun/just after we saw it separately” I begin to snooze. Carr fortunately still has dogs and kites and lilacs here too and is more often sonorous and delicate than such clunky pronouncements suggest.
#3 – The Counting House by sandra ridley (2013)
What Shines: Unlike with the other two BookThug titles, I love this sleek cover of a knotted manse, a crow, a woven scrawl. The font and positioning of text on the page is also tasty and, having had the good fortune to hear ridley recite the longest sequence in the book, “Testamonium” I can attest to the fragmentary liquidity of the intellectual chant with its regal tonalities and mysteriously brusque eroticisms. While there are drynesses here like “She hears the detailed various…Less legitimately constrained”, somehow the incantatory reappearance of Your Darling anchors the aural power and enables the lurid flow: “Your Darling explains the excessive. The manic…Each agitation won’t cease to affect her. Bitten hands. Bitten lip.” The visceral is enabled through repetition here, rather than with sensorial detail, meaning once again my little rules for writing were momentarily tossed out the casement window, defenestrated as it were. Alas.
What Stumbles: “Lax Tabulation,” the section in which pieces all start with the word “Recent” in the title followed by a forward slash /and descriptors such as irreconcilable or fraught, and that can be read any which way, were rather dull, perhaps because I find such methods have been if not exhausted then somewhat wrung out. ridley would have ended much more powerfully on the final lines of “Testamonium”: “The scandal vanquished/you will find nothing” than with the fleeting eros of “Luxuria” which concludes with three all capped lines “LOVERAINHEAVY/RAINHEAVYLOVE/HEAVYLOVERAIN.” Just stating such things is not enough. There is lushness sufficient prior. But then again, there is this other motive that rebuffs the melodic or intelligible ending. And so.