Thursday, August 17, 2006

Short notes on three American poetry collections: Dara Wier's Remnants of Hannah, Brian Henry's Quarantine & Martin Corless-Smith's Swallows

Until the poetry collection, Remnants of Hannah (Seattle WA / New York NY: Wave Books, 2006) appeared, I hadn’t even heard of Amherst, Massachusetts author Dara Wier, author of nine previous collections including Reverse Rapture, Hat on a Pond, Voyages in English, Our Master Plan, Blue for the Plough, The Book of Knowledge and All You Have in Common.

Attitude of Rags

It felt like a story sorry it'd lost all its sentences,
Like a sentence looking for its syntax.
All of the words had homeless, unemployed, orphan
Written all over their faces.
It had that parboiled, simmering, half-baked look
Of curiosity about its mouth, like a month of Sundays
Has in the mind of a non-believer, a true back-slider.
One got the impression reluctance was waxing.
One wanted to say passion was taking a beating.
One wanted to say one's prey to one's feeling.
The feathers of their feelings were all scattered.
It was the kind of day were one to see a flock of
Creepy baby angel heads attached at their necks to
Pitch-black aerodynamically preposterous little wings
Clustering at the sum of things, one would rub one's
Eyes, be too faint to respond, much less explain.
It looked the way a fence looks just after the last
Stampede. A big old blood-colored barn collapsed in
Its tracks. Out of hiding came all the hidden cameras.
It looked like streets look after a parade's disbanded.
It was the kind of day in which emotions roaming from
Town to town, free to be themselves, enjoyed their
Rich fantasy lives. This was the kind of day that day
Was. We were rags in the hands of a narcoleptic duster. (p 13)

I like the deceptively-clear statements to Wier's poems, her prose-stares that wind their way across the page in ways that poems are supposed to, and even not supposed to. There is a wonderful sense of gracefulness to these poems, and thus, the entire collection, which make me glad to have heard of her at all, and make me want to find at least one of her nine previous poetry books. And besides, who else is writing anything (that I've seen lately) to John Clare?

Homage to John Clare

Babies come into this world without shadows
Almost like snakes
Ants have better chances, ants never weep
I'm trying to talk my brain into recovering from a blow
It took from a fork made of words
By a real brain
My love saw it happen but could only exclaim he tried to
Explain something from heaven but it was from hell what
The hell it didn't hurt me it was more like being hit on
The head by a feather, a small one
To think in reverse is not possible
Or is that what is happening when one reads something
Backwards something reads one when happening is what
That is
Vinyl, it was said with authority
Llamas look as if they like grazing in the rain in the
Fields, east of town
John Clare also grazed on his way home from his asylum
I was looking at a bear standing upright in a t-shirt
Licking a page of a book it was holding
Maybe words on a page were honey or
Something bears are attracted to, like fish or
Bittersweet berries
I have no further access to the pages of that book

I have no feathers, I am not made of vinyl
I was trying to sound as if I meant business
I had the shadows
Of the leaves of a tree all over me
The sun inched over, I was covered in cobwebs
My love was suspiciously silent (pp 32-3)

The second of the three books is Quarantine (Boise Idaho: Ahsahta Press, 2006) by Brian Henry (why do so many poetry collections have thin to non-existent bios?). In two related sequences, "Quarantine" and "Contagion," Henry works two sequences of sickness, hurt, hate and reaction, as the forty-part first section works in almost a series of narrative sequences explored through a series of dreams. What I like about these particular poems is that they run in a breathless quality, both through structure and content, and should almost be spoken out loud in a single and impossible continuous breath.


My wife tried to kill me once in bed
a knife at my throat she told me
to say something to speak to her
or she would cut out my tongue
I said please and she stabbed me
in the neck I lay in bed waiting to die
but I only fell asleep I did not dream
awoke with the knife next to me
and her standing by the door watching
perhaps now you will speak to me
I sat up and grabbed the knife and held it
toward her she opened the door to flee
I licked the blood off the blade
and fell asleep again this time with dreams (p 24)

As a counterpoint to the longer and more dream-narrative poems in the first sequence, the second sequence of the collection, "Contagion," is a series of shorter poems that steal lines and phrases from the poems in the first, bastardizing small collage works from everything that has come before, turning the lines of "QUARANTINE / 30," for example:


Wine when I drank it would send me
to sleep I rarely drank unlike my father
he drank as long as I can remember
his face puckered from it all redder
as he aged his face a bulbous mass
I kicked him once by accident in the face
a man and his son playing his big jaw
smacked he swung so hard at my head
I could taste the blood before his hand (p 36)

into the shorter poem "Contagion / 11":

Contagion / 11

I could taste the blood before his hand. (p 56)

Are the "Contagion" poems merely the dreams that the "Quarantine" poems might have? Is the second series merely a series of dreams had by a series of dreams? I like poems that turn in on themselves, working out of their own base materials (something Toronto poet Margaret Christakos has turned into a gifted skill in various of her own collections). And what happens when any of these poems wake?

Easily the most ambitious of the three collections has to be Martin Corless-Smith's Swallows (New York NY: Fence Books, 2006). Writing a house and the self out of Keats, Horace and various inquiries, his is a structure easily entered but not easily left, and not easily mapped. His is the best kind of book; one you need to sit with for a long time to fully explore. A wonderful intertext, Corless-Smith has a range of quotes tucked into various corners of the collection by John Donne, Pliny the Elder, Sir Thomas Browne, Walt Whitman, W.G. Sebald, various books of the Bible and E.M. Forster, among others. Despite the amount of quotes (there are actually thirteen pages of quoted text before even the first page of Corless-Smith's own) it feels less a matter of threatening to overwhelm than an essential part of Corless-Smith's foundation; he has a lot of material and needs a strong base on which to build. One of the most thoughtful and ambitious American examples of "the book as unit of composition" I've seen in some time, I am very interested to see what else this Corless-Smith fellow has been up to. Something complicated, no doubt.


We become subject, more than we are aware, to idols of the theatre.

(A) room is a doorway.

The mind is written (read) on the body.

Our (real) house has no walls.

We are (the same) as grass. We are very much like cattle.

Efforts of understanding (are) born out of futility where they remain.

The spirit dwells in activity (of the body / the world).

Your meaning, when you speak, is that you speak.

Without is contained all that is within.

Our features are war, famine, hatred, sadness as well as play, harvest, love and pleasure.

Happiness accepts strife.

(In) change (something) always persists.

Lightning…a career…(an island)

The web is no mistake between the leaves.

Of another colour, of another temperature is else.

Peace is a quiet war.

If we must see the universe as human, let it be an imbecile.

Qualities are not apart from our understanding (are not away from our noticing).

Our idea of the human is the human. Our idea of the cow is such.

An event may be seen as fortuitous or accidental.

Things are in harmony without the pleasure of (our) agreement.

Knowledge is a sensation of ignorance.

All Things (something) are in the process of change, our understanding of which is to observe them (it) between two imagined poles.

Because we remember we believe we endure. Memory is a comparison of moments, not a store of ages.

The only necessity is that which is next.

If Man is moral fire is moral.

Can we then separate Water, Earth, Fire and Air? Only in their instant. And then onward. One is always in brittle contact with its most elusive other aspect.

Is our seeing anything less than the energy to see?

There is no difference between self-knowledge and knowledge of the world. Can you see behind your eyes?

Desire is coterminous with movement. Satisfaction is other than desire.

Is my living discernible from yours?

Soul is that name which I give to all that beneath all I am…

Myself is an accidental outcome through my responsibilities are true.

If I am wholly free I am only partially aware of this.

If you don’t compromise might you live forever?

Man is frail and the law of the universe is mutability.

The things you have decided are not necessary. (pp 5-7)

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