Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Pattie McCarthy, margerykempething and qweyne wifthing


thirty-eight years I lived with my husband
when I was not on pilgrimages or
locked in the buttery saying prayers by rote
thirty-eight years & fourteen children I
lived with my husband     I am no virgin
I am no heretic either                         margery
kempe conceives in a hairshirt a last child
a lapse   this sentence from several failed
attempts   margery kempe was not embarrassed
had ful many delectably thowtys fleschly
lustys     & inordinate lovys to hys persone
we cannot count the blackbirds in the tree
fast enough    they move about & fly away
disappointed I am not my husband

From Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy comes two new, beautifully designed and produced chapbooks via a collaboration between eth press and Punch Press, her margerykempething (2017) and qweyne wifthing (2017). It would be impossible not to see these two publications as siblings, even as two sections of a larger, book-length work-in-progress. Through these, McCarthy researches into and through the terrain of Medieval mystics, women, their labour, tales of mothering, birth and other related topics that have existed throughout the whole of her published work-to-date, from bk of (h)rs (Apogee Press, 2002) and Verso (Apogee Press, 2004) to Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (Apogee Press, 2010), Marybones (Apogee Press, 2013) [see my review of such here] and Quiet Book (Apogee Press, 2016) [see my review of such here]. As she spoke of her interest in Medieval subjects as part of an interview for Touch the Donkey a couple of years ago:

I’ve been in love with the medieval for most of my life. This definitely has something to do with attending Catholic school—the art! The syntax of Catholicism, too, led me to studying the medieval. I think that most people are irrationally attracted to certain historical periods. The way medieval literature & art employ narrative—fragmented or episodic narrative, specifically—also the sense of simultaneity, layers of time in the work—it makes sense to me. On a more personal note, the lives of the saints were like fairytales for me. I mean, when I was a little Catholic schoolgirl we learned about all the girl-saints, about Mary—& those stories stuck to me. My school taught us a great deal about medieval women mystics, about Joan of Arc, about anchoresses in their cells, & it was very ‘cult of the virgin’ when it came to Mary (at least as far as I remember). Even as a child I think I understood that those stories all had to do with power, with women’s bodies, with literacy. I think the nuns taught us about the mystics to counteract “woman is a temple built over a sewer” & “woman is defective & misbegotten” & the rest of the church fathers (which I also remember well, clearly). When I walk into The Cloisters or the Musée de Cluny or the medieval galleries at any art museum, I want to sit down & think & be quiet. I feel that way in medieval churches as well—it’s what left of religion for me.

margerykempething and qweyne wifthing are each composed as collections of twenty-four sonnets (with all poems in margerykempething sharing the title, as do all the poems in qweyne wifthing, same), and margerykempething takes as its prompt the manuscript Book of Margery Kempe that sits in the British Library, an edition that sits as a single copy, giving Margery Kempe the title of “first English autobiographer.” When a digital version of “medieval mystic” Kempe’s manuscript was released online in 2014, Alison Flood wrote in The Guardian:

Kempe lived in Norfolk from around 1373 to 1440. After she had given birth to 14 children, she made a vow to live chastely with her husband, and embarked on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Italy and Germany. Her devotion was expressed through loud cries and roars, which often irritated bystanders, but she became famous as a mystic, and claimed to have conversations with God.


Biggs said the memoir, which has just been digitised by the British Library, was “perhaps the first autobiography written in English”, and is also “a remarkable record of the religious life of a woman during the tumultuous 14th and 15th centuries”.

McCarthy, on her part, cites the 2000 Longman edition as her source for quotations, but the 1985 Penguin edition, her “undergrad copy,” as her “sentimental source,” writing out the details of Kempe in a line both straight and slant: “margery kempe invents the autobi- / ography &       vernacular tell-all / the backs of quiet houses from the train / a month & a half of inconvenient / Sundays [.]” The second (admittedly arbitrary on my part, given the publication of these two items appear concurrent) collection, qweyne wifthing, centres itself not on a singular specific text or individual, but on multiple, citing David Baldwin’s Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower and Linda Simon’s Of virtue rare: Margaret Beaufort, matriarch of the House of Tudor. She centres the collection instead on multiple Medieval matriarchs, royalty and sex, as “wifthing” is defined, variously, as sexual intercourse with a woman, an affair connected with a woman or wife, or, simply, a wedding or coupling. In her poems, lines and phrases repeat and are reordered, reworked, allowing echoes and threads to exist throughout; repeating even as the poem progresses, furthers, further on. The repetition exists almost as a reminder that the stories might belong to different women of the period, but are far too familiar, and far too often repeat the same array of mistakes, misfortunes, loves and losses. As McCarthy writes:

they breathe together that she is always
the same woman          but those are different
women      bent at the waist with grief hands
over their mouths        covering what sounds
it’s just that in that moment of recognition
that point in the process of knowing one’s
own fear & grief                      everyone moves the same
there never was a ‘before we were lovers;
after there were children & thus   infinite time
both stretching into the future & also
in every second     so that any second in fear
over the baby’s body was excruciated & endless
& in the gap of the mouth   to be or become
wide open        the whole round earth in his blue mouth

Monday, February 19, 2018

announcing : versefest 2018!

Six days, seventy poets, one festival. Celebrating written poetry and spoken word in English and French, VF ’18 brings you some of the most exciting poets on the planet.


MARCH 20 – 25, 2018

Ahmed Ali, Alice Notley, Allison LaSorda, Carolyn Marie Souaid, Chris Tse, Christine McNair, Claire Kelly, Colette Bryce, Daniel Dugas, David Charette, David Groulx, Di Brandt, Didi Jackson, Faith Arkorful, Frédéric Lanouette, Gary Barwin, Georgette LaBlanc, Gonzalo Hermo, Hans Jongman, Henry Beissel, Hoa Nguyen, Holly Painter, Jamaal Jackson Rogers, Jan Zwicky, Jean Van Loon, Jeff Latosik, Jennifer Baker, Jonathan Lamy, Kama La Mackerel, Kate Cayley, Klara du Plessis, Lady Vanessa Cardona, Louise Bernice Halfe, Louise Dupré, Luce Pelleteir, Lynn Crosbie, Madeleine Stratford, Major Jackson, Miles Hodges, Natalee Wee, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, Nyla Matuk, Peter Sirr, Rachel McCrum, Robyn Schiff, Sjón, Sneha Madhavan-Reese, Steve McCaffery, Tina Charlebois and Victoria Gravesande, as well as this year's Hall of Honour inductees!

For a full schedule, including ticket information (and festival passes!) check out http://versefest.ca

Sunday, February 18, 2018

above/ground press 25th anniversary essays

I’ve started posting a series of short essays/reminiscences by a variety of authors and friends of the press to help mark the quarter century mark of above/ground press, aiming to appear on the above/ground press blog throughout 2018. 

So far, short essays have appeared by above/ground press authors
Erín Moure, Stan Rogal, Eleni Zisimatos, Derek Beaulieu and Jessica Smith, with forthcoming pieces by Gary Barwin, Amanda Earl and Jason Christie, among others. You can see links to the whole series as it develops, here. 

And of course, 2018 subscriptions (backdated to January 1st) are still completely possible. New and forthcoming 2018 titles include chapbooks by (in reverse order): Allison Cardon, Melissa Eleftherion, Uxío Novoneyra (trans. Erín Moure), Travis Sharp, Dani Spinosa, Andrew Wessels, Stuart Kinmond / Phil Hall, Natalee Caple, Jon Boisvert, Lise Downe, Dennis Cooley, Edward Smallfield, Sean Braune, Kate Siklosi, Michael Martin Shea, Jennifer Stella, Miguel E. Ortiz Rodríguez, Sara Renee Marshall, Gary Barwin and Tom Prime, Stephanie Gray, Amish Trivedi, Stan Rogal, Eleni Zisimatos, Gary Barwin and Alice Burdick, Rachel Mindell, Adrienne Gruber, Andrew Cantrell, kevin martins mcpherson eckhoff and Anna Gurton-Wachter (as well as four issues of the quarterly Touch the Donkey, and at least one issue of The Peter F. Yacht Club).

I mean, the press produced forty chapbooks last year (roughly half by Canadian writers and the rest by American writers). Isn’t that work a mere sixty-five dollars?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Eléna Rivera, Scaffolding


“To read what is hidden” the conversation
begins with that, the silence, the cloaked waiting
It must be paid attention to no matter
what—it demands to be first as is its right,
and too much accretion woven around it
will hide instinct’s way if ego’s unwilling
to bond with, to taste the dialogue’s intense
distance—that entering of mind’s divisions,
bringing one tongue forward reading the other’s
silence without unraveling completely,
having a sense of direction a desire
to meet the poem’s density where thickness
clings to a cloaked rendering that doesn’t end
but meets with isolated words: tuff, gorse, edge

Somewhere during the later 1990s, I picked up a second-hand copy of poet and translator Eléna Rivera’s small title Wale; or The Corse (Buffalo NY: Leave Books, 1994) at Montreal’s The Word Bookstore and was immediately struck by the flow of her lyric, and the structure of the book-length poem, and spent years curious about how what she might end up doing next. Given that, I’m very pleased to finally be able to get into her most recent title, Scaffolding (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), a collection of eighty-two sonnets composed as a kind of “day book” project over the space of nearly a year (the dates run from mid-July through to the end of the following April). Composed around the sights, sounds, buildings and figures, both contemporary and historical, of New York City, where Rivera now lives, Scaffolding is well-named, with a collection of sonnets entirely centred around structure. As part of an interview around the book published on the Princeton University Press blog soon after the book appeared, she spoke on the combination of title and her use of the sonnet: “The sonnet form is a kind of ‘scaffolding,’ a structure, for the substance and sounds of the poem, as is the hendecasyllable line. I also like the darker meaning of the word, ‘an elevated platform on which a criminal is executed;’ there was something that felt dangerous about these poems, about what I was doing.” Earlier in the same interview, she wrote:

I’ve always been interested in form, the interplay between form and content, between the inner and the outer. I wanted to experience what it would be like to write discreet poems over time. I had been engaged with writing long poems for a while. I’d work on a piece, playing with different possibilities, until the form would come to me and I knew then that the poem had found its direction (the amount of time I have, and the concerns of the poem, are what dictate the poem’s length). I was interested in the book as form (a love of the epic) and made one-of-a-kind books, and books in hand-letterpress editions (fascinated by the weight of the single lead letter). At first the sonnet seemed the complete opposite of what I had been doing, but really it wasn’t that different, the form got smaller, tighter, and I filled it rather than found it; it shaped the conversation, the music of it. I really became fascinated by the fourteen-line form, what such a compact container could give rise to, and once I committed myself to it I felt compelled to continue.

While some have argued for the limitations of the sonnet, Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell has argued, as others have, the sonnet’s infinite possibilities and endless mutability, which most likely suggests why the sonnet is still in such use. With the form of the sonnet and the idea of scaffolding, Rivera’s Scaffolding exists as a kind of catch-all, able to hold anything and everything, picking up multiple elements from her knowledge of New York City to compose collage-sonnets tight enough that even a bird might land upon them.


It’s madness this falling in love with sadness,
that faint sound a song that keeps resurfacing
between thoughts that Icarus carried too far
seen from the river’s edge painting by Bruegel
She’s able to swim with help from a large dog
(over and beyond tale of the falling youth)
I envy the comfort that she takes from him
(falling brusquely into a dream) bathed in a
sunlit world where “the whole pageantry” deepest
when at my desk voluntarily holding
“it” the absent, the falling, the dangerous
just balances at the edge of the tale, of
dangerous dropping places where “knights” “ladies”
plummet and cannot recover from madness—