Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Chicago Review 56:2/3 (autumn 2011)


That with which a new and selected shelf lets, permits, entreats:
Sand and saw blade—she has bow to blade to breeze and
within a cross-generational miscellany
to alter the perimeters of the object, she, the one and the many.
Recent and raided, opera doing elected battle with itself
while you slow oxen turn the furrowed plain
knowing now, not known then, did know, known and not fallow
known then, but fallow since anomalous. (Marjorie Welish, “An Anthology Called Pegasus”)
After a sequence of theme issues, including magnificent issues on the work of Louis Zukofsky (winter 2005), Lisa Robertson (spring 2006), Barbara Guest (summer 2008), Seven Poets from Berlin (winter 2010) and New Italian Writing (spring 2011), it’s also good to see The Chicago Review feature a more general issue, with new poetry, fiction and critical writing by Trevor Joyce, Keston Sutherland, Stephanie Strickland, Tom Pickard, Marjorie Welish, Nathanaël, Forrest Gander, Dustin Simpson, Charles Altieri and various others, as well as a small feature of three essays by the late Veronica Forrest-Thomson (1947-75), introduced by Michael Hansen and Gareth Farmer. As Hansen and Farmer write in their introduction to Forrest-Thomson’s essays—“from His True Penelope was Flaubert: Ezra Pound and Nineteenth-Century Poetry,” “from Lilies from the Acorn” and “Pastoral and Elegy in the Early Poems of Tennyson”:
By the time of her death at the age of twenty-seven, Veronica Forrest-Thomson (1947-75) had produced a remarkable body of poetry and criticism. Her most influential work, Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry, published posthumously in 1978, turned sharply against critics of the previous generation, notably William Empson, and against emergent strains of historicism. The book is an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) defense of “all the rhythmic, phonetic, verbal, and logical devices which make poetry different than prose.” […] The essays exist only in single versions, and are clearly drafts. They have been edited for clarity. Edits are primarily orthographic and grammatical; in some instances, sentences have been slightly adjusted on a case-by-case assessment of Forrest-Thomson’s intentions. Readers interested in locating other work by Forrest-Thomson should consult Alison Mark’s excellent biography in Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry (2001).
For a number of years now, The Chicago Review has been one of the rare American trade journals both mainstream and interested in more experimental works, a merging that doesn’t always mesh, especially on the north side of the American-Canadian border. Given that it includes reviews and review-essays, The Chicago Review’s essential rarity as a large-scale trade journal is pretty much confirmed. Brian M. Reed’s enlightened review of Cole Swensen’s greensward [something I reviewed as well, here] provides a series of long perspectives from a reader of Swensen’s work for some time, and Charles Altieri’s attention in “The Place of Rhetoric in Contemporary American Poetics: Jennifer Moxley and Juliana Spahr” seems long overdue.
But I limit my discussion here to Juliana Spahr and Jennifer Moxley, poets whose recent work is in many respects distant from the experimental tradition (Language writing) with which they are most commonly associated. These poets do not so much renounce that tradition as put the spirit of experiment to new use in exploring how poetry might take on more overt social responsibilities. In the process, they redefine received opinions of what rhetoric entails. Spahr offers what I will call a “thin” subjectivity that reduces boundaries among agents and elicits direct participation in the political situations she dramatizes. Moxley calls on rhetoric to establish a poetry with the directness of prose. She explores strategies for reducing the self-defensive postures of obscurity and tests the possibilities of what we might call “sincerity effects.” Neither Spahr nor Moxley offers a theory of rhetoric or engages classical texts on the subject. Yet an understanding of rhetoric that can accommodate resistance to the effects of well-madeness or artifactuality offers powerful insight into their poetic strategies.
I wonder what Altieri might think of, say, the work of poets Stephen Collis, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Peter Culley, nikki reimer or Jeff Derksen? But still, one comes to a journal such as this to see the new writing, I’d suspect, first; to read the poems that might otherwise have been lost, set aside, or discovered after much more effort, and the efforts here are worth it, including an intriguing sequence by Jason Harmon, the 6-part “Cento Encephalogram,” that includes:

What you have doesn’t help, less is more, feathers pulled out, gradual improvement.

A feather in the hat of indeterminacy”

I had a long pole with a chicken feather, and I would move it and then

with a feather—that circle is reminiscent of Chinese or Japanese calligraphy,

two featherS behind Just befOre theY disappear beuys touching his forEhead with both feathers.

and trace its outline on the page with a feather dipped in watercolor

(toothpicks, matches, slinkies, piano wires, feathers, etc….
I’m always shocked at the lack of recognition for the work of Chicago-based Canadian writer Nathanaël, the poet formerly known as nathalie stephens, despite title after title of incredible work over the past two decades. Perhaps her work is so difficult to categorize, it becomes easier to overlook? I’m still struggling to articulate anything useful on her two most recent books—Absence Where As (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book) (2009) and We Press Ourselves Plainly (2010)—both published by American publisher Nightboat Books. With each of Nathanaël’s trade titles, the book-length fluidity of essay, philosophy, poem and fiction merged into a new, unnameable form become so much clearer, and thusly, more shocking for their brilliance. In this issue is a lengthy selection, “from THE MIDDLE NOTEBOOKES,” that begins:


Please forgive me, it’s raining.


I would like to write you the letter of that duration, but I am so stunned that I can only imagine the letter, tossed about as I am by these sorrows sometimes a strange euphoria. Tonight it is a sorrow that is as vast as this city and installed at my center. I can only look around me at these boxes and crawl across this floor before surrendering to the day ending. // I look at the horizon and I cannot distinguish the sky from the ground.


The tear is in stead, but I won’t make an equation out of it.


Today I am unspeakable, that’s not right, but I’ll say it anyway, language has no need for me.

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