Sunday, May 20, 2012

sentence: a journal of prose poetics #9

Two Agents

We’re nothing but a dream of polar magnets, little ghost. Curtains could be painted or suddenly real. Brezhnev is coming, a minor detail clinking to his belt, a tugboat with trailer lights, our widemouth jar of spacedust. Not Hölderlin enough? Even dogs can’t live forever in imitation sunlight. Surrounded by flares, we knew to set aside our spines, lisping out absinthe, looking for our coats. (Elizabeth Willis)

I seem to have missed the previous issue, but good to see the new volume of sentence:a journal of prose poetics, the first by incoming editor Brian Johnson, replacing founding editor Brian Clements. Originally founded to “continue the tradition of publishing excellent prose poems established by Peter Johnson’s The Prose Poem: an International Journal,” sentence (as Johnson’s “Foreword” writes) works to “foster the Protean vitality of the prose poem.” 

This issue features a section titled “Abstraction and the Prose Poem,” guest-edited by Richard Deming, which (as Johnson writes) “brings together an impressive range of poets working in and around the conventions of the prose poem, trying to extend both the medium and its messages.” 

I’m intrigued by the notions of what Johnson considers the “conventions” of the prose poem, as I’ve noticed much of the American variant on the form far more prosaic (a la Russell Edson) than the Canadian one (a la Robert Kroetsch). 

What are the conventions? Where do the differences begin?

The lost (the

drowning the fata morgana) is a lonely word poling its way from one mouth to another. As if pregnant as if to breed tongues but then hangs in the air like a fist of cloud the size of a pea. It is sad that the everything between burned down and it is sad that the everything between did not burn completely but only partly with most of it exposed and now the what’s left lodging into the corners that are no longer there. And only the face left floating in the corners. Words are lonely boats and the mouth has to launch one word at a time maybe this. (Jeanne Stauffer-Merle)

Part of the ability of the prose-poem is to exist entirely in that open space between what is considered “poem” and “prose,” leaving a pretty vast and wide spectrum of structural options, a number of which appears quite readily in the pages of sentence: a journal of prose poetics. With pieces by Paige Taggert, Aaron Shurin, Tom Dickinson and many others, the special “abstraction” feature is, to my mind, far more striking, with pieces by Julie Carr, Peter Gizzi, Charles Bernstein, Matthew Cooperman, Susan Briante, Andrew Zawacki, John Ashbery, Rosmarie Waldrop, Ron Padgett and many more. Bernstein’s pieces are memorable for how well he manages to tear prose-poem sentences apart, whether literally or simply spaced around the page, and still manage to have them considered prose poems.

Unready, Unwilling, Unable

Peerlessly literal,

We’re a little nearer than we were.

There is nothing I would rather see
than an angel dancing on a rhyme

or a unicorn playing Phaedra.

I love humanity; it’s people I can’t bear.

I am a Jewish man trapped
in the body of a Jewish man.
I love people;

humanity scares me.
If nothing is translatable, then

everything is.

Scars me. (Charles Bernstein)

The issue concludes with a handful of book reviews, which extend a further and essential engagement with the prose poem form. Still, I keep hoping to see Lea Graham in here, with one or two of those magnificent epistolary poems she’s been writing lately, in her “Dear Robert Kroetsch” series. Perhaps by issue #10.

Chinese New Year in Illinois

I won’t light a firecracker or take part in the ritual to dust the rafter, sweep eaves, or hang scrolls of red carp and fat boy in grandma’s tangwu. Her house is empty. There will be no reunion this year as she migrates to the world of yin and I move, from the Middle Kingdom to the Midwest. The lantern of childhood still burns my eyes. I pull out my one Sichuanese recipe book and begin to read. I read into night, past time and winter until I see wind-dried sausages lit by red pepper, blood oranges glow on bare boughs. I read so attentively I could be studying the composition of poetry or alchemy. There is no hunger like this, no such longing. (Jie Tian)

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