Book Reviews, 04/2012



Campbell McGrath | In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys

Ecco/Harper Collins (2012)

By Jeff Simpson

seamonkeyHarold von Braunhut, the great American mail-order marketer, invented Sea-Monkeys in 1957 to compete with the bourgeoning ant farm market. He also invented x-ray specs, and his grandfather, Tobias Cohn, owned the patent for the toy pail and shovel. Von Braunhut’s genius was not that he made a fortune selling brine shrimp, but that he marketed the product by buying millions of pages of comic books ads per year, depicting the shrimp as humanoid creatures that live in undersea castles. He took larva-like crustaceans that have changed little since the Triassic period and enchanted them with only the slightest nudge to our imaginations.

It’s been over 20 years since Campbell McGrath published his debut collection, Capitalism (Wesleyan, 1990), an impressive first book that introduced American poetry to McGrath’s favorite subject matter: culture, place, commerce, community, convenience, discourse, our duplicitous relationship with the material world. His latest book, In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, pulls off another kind of enchantment as it circulates through the same “miraculous hand of the marketplace,” only here our bedazzled and decaying reliquaries come in the form of megastores, boardwalks, and neighborhood dive bars. In “Minneapolis,” one of the many place poems, McGrath’s speaker rhapsodizes about The Replacements and the destructive urge in rock and roll: “Let’s get drunk and drive some-place, way too fast and loving it. Let’s get drunk and toss important stuff out the window—there goes the toaster, there goes a lamp.” But what begins as memory, as impulse, quickly morphs, in typical McGrath fashion, into a dizzying cultural critique: “Surely this is the form and body of the world I have known / entirely American, / and surely America’s golden dreams shall yield to the sober and diminished light of dawn…”

While Kingdom in some ways returns to previously explored territory, it is not a homecoming. Unlike the expansive feeling of his earlier works—“The Bob Hope Poem” from Spring Comes to Chicago (Ecco 1996) and “A City in the Clouds” from Florida Poems (Ecco, 2002)—in which the horizon stretches endlessly page after page, creating large, unruly poems, Kingdom downsizes its economy, offering poems that are more self-contained. I don’t simply mean the poems are smaller in size—yes, there’s an economy of scale being carried out—but it’s less attenuation than a shift in perspective. Kingdom picks up where McGrath’s Seven Notebooks (Ecco, 2007) left off, producing meta-conversational works about the nature of writing and the life of a career writer and teacher. Poems like “Po Biz” and “Notes on Process” show us an insider’s view of what it’s like to eat, breathe, and teach writing, to ponder the longevity of books over their readers, to simultaneously question and praise the power of language, to experience publication as morning-after birthday balloons that “tug against their token earth-weights / inflecting the streamers of silver sunlight / with the sadness / and urgency of their desire / to rise.”

When most poets opt to write about process, poetry as a subject, metacognition, or to pay homage to other writers—which Kingdom does in quantity—it usually ends up feeling like novelty substitutions for lack of genuine ideas. McGrath, however, avoids this pitfall because he hasn’t arbitrarily assigned himself a topic but writes sincerely about the self-reflexive headspace he inhabits.

Sincerity in poetry is tricky business. In one of his great essays, “Baudelaire: the Question of His Sincerity,” the poet Donald Justice explains that for him sincerity is a “pose.” The “sincere poet—becomes a performer, a charlatan, a great pretender; art is artifice. What he has to be sincere about is his art.” While Kingdom is highly autobiographical, McGrath achieves sincerity not by sticking to the facts, but by refusing to showboat or churn out predictable work. The result is a collection of poems that are too intelligent, too satirical, too gutsy and humorous to stick to any one ideology or subject.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say part of me misses the big, messy, deeply meditative poems in which McGrath repurposes some icon—Bob Hope or Axel Rose playing the part of Dante’s Virgil leading us through the underworld of American nostalgia—but that feeling misses the point. In The Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys handles a little bit of everything—cultural critique, jeers, questions of aesthetics and process. It’s McGrath writing in one of his most relaxed and experienced states, a fighter turned trainer who, after years of building muscle memory, slips into the combinations and drills with such easy poise, such light-footedness, we’re reminded that “Poetry is not the world. / We cannot breathe its atmosphere, / we cannot live there, but we can visit, / like sponge divers in bulbous copper helmets / come to claim some small portion / of the miraculous.”

To read poems from In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys published in our June 2011 issue, click here. To read an interview with Campbell McGrath published in this same issue, click here.


Ryan Boudinot | Blueprints of the Afterlife

Grove Press/Black Cat (2012)

By Brian Gebhart

blueprintsThe word “apocalypse,” when traced back to its Greek roots, means “to lift the veil,” or more succinctly, “revelation.” It seems…revealing, then, that the word’s meaning has shifted over the centuries to end up where it is now. Instead of indicating the process of revelation, “apocalypse” is now the subject, the thing that is revealed. And what better subject for revelation than the end of the world?

Though humans have been imagining the end ever since the beginning, our culture seems to have been unusually obsessed with all things apocalyptic for several years now. I won’t bore you with a history of this resurgence, though I’ll admit I am tempted. I taught a class on apocalyptic narratives in the summer of 2010, as temperatures rose across the globe and a seemingly endless stream of crude oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. That same summer, Ryan Boudinot suggested, in his column at The Rumpus, “that the post-apocalyptic genre no longer be considered a branch of science fiction but a genre unto itself.” He imagines Cormac McCarthy’s The Road sharing shelf space with Stephen King’s The Stand and Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. We could add Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife to the shelf, and I’d also like to add some of the books I was reminded of while reading it: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Max Brooks’ World War Z, as well as classics of the genre like A Canticle for Leibowitz and even Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. The range included here should give you a sense of how wide a net Boudinot has cast. He’s managed to put together a story that is at once visionary and mystifying, and that accomplishes both more and less than other works in the genre.

Boudinot’s approach seems to begin with the maxim that more is always better. So his apocalypse is not just a singular occurrence. It’s an entire period of history that includes war, famine, disease—all of the horsemen get a nod—as well as climate change, armies of “newmen” clones, and a giant, roving, gravity-defying glacier by the name of Malaspina. This era is so mindboggling that survivors simply refer to it as “the Age of Fucked-Up Shit,” or FUS for short. After the cleverly named FUS has passed, the earth’s human population is greatly reduced. The survivors inhabit a technological wonderland, and their lives follow a kind of dream logic, where a person may exist in two places at the same time, or even be simultaneously alive and dead. Boudinot provides us a broad cast of characters to carry us through this strange reality. Woo-jin Kan, a professional dishwasher, experiences a vision where his future brain tells him to write a book titled How to Love People, which will someday be read by a mysterious figure known as “the Last Dude.” Abby Fogg is a “data retrieval expert” who has wondered since childhood “why she was herself instead of somebody else.” Al Skinner is a soldier who fought the armies of newmen during the FUS. And Neethan F. Jordan (here again, the “F” stands for “fucking”) is a celebrity actor whose world gradually becomes more and more like a video game, until he’s arming himself with holographic weapons and jumping at gold coins hovering in the air. Finally, there’s Luke Piper and Nick Fedderley, characters living in our own time, whose actions may or may not have precipitated the apocalypse.

If you’re finding all of this a little hard to process, that effect seems purposeful, though some of the satirical touches are haunting for their futuristic plausibility. I’m thinking especially of the Bionet, a worldwide network of nanobots inhabiting people’s bodies that can deliver medicine, repair damaged tissue, or even, in the hands of certain malicious hackers, remotely control a person’s every move. But as the pages fly by—and they do fly, because Blueprints is nothing if not engrossing—it becomes harder and harder to trust what the characters see, hear, and experience. As one character remarks, “I can’t tell what life this is, whether it belongs to me or is just being played for laughs by somebody else.” The novel itself conveys a similar instability. Are the events being related occurring in reality or in a simulation, life or afterlife, dream, prophecy, or something else entirely? As soon as one veil is lifted, another veil drops down to replace it.

And yet, as maddening as this can be, it might also be the entire point. Isn’t reality just a series of stories we tell ourselves about the world? Even Mitchell’s much-lauded Cloud Atlas (which, to my mind, deserves its plaudits)uses similar techniques, overlapping narrative threads that both complement and confound one another. Boudinot’s title also hints at multiplicity: there is not a singular “blueprint,” but many. And this narrative instability allows Boudinot to revel in the book’s more cartoonish elements while retaining an ironic distance. Whether this approach fascinates or irritates will depend on each reader’s willingness to suspend the desire for certainty and clear lines of causation.

Our collective obsession with The End has always given us vague prophecies and hazy portents of doom, because the apocalypse and its revelation cannot be separated. Or as Blueprints seems to suggest: the veil can never be lifted because the veil is all we have.


Ariana Reines | Mercury

Fence Books (2011)

By Katrina Greco

mercury-jacketWhile one should never judge a book by its cover, Ariana Reines’ book Mercury is a volume that immediately commands attention. The 237 pages of this substantial work are encased in metallic silver, reflecting the reader’s distorted image back to her before a single poem has been read. The back cover, rather than featuring blurbs, or a description of the book, features a poem, “We Can Do It,” which addresses the reader directly. “Whoever you are,” Reines writes, “If you ever open this / By your light / You can keep it.”  Mercury is an intensely intimate book, a window into the poet’s thoughts, feelings, concerns, and soul. The resulting poems, which combine alchemy and confessional, popular culture and pornography, family history and fears, are unflinchingly honest, emotionally evocative, and often uncomfortable and even ugly.  She expects the reader to recognize themselves in this book – “You really / Can stop lying to yourself.” She insists on the back cover, “I know to suffer / Alone is not an innovation. / You know this one / Too.” Mercury is an ambitious, if uneven, work, utilizing a conversational, stream of consciousness writing style to explore the way we interact with our world.

Reines determinedly shies away from nothing, gustily painting an often dirty and unflattering portrait of modern life. While Mercury is rooted in the past, with numerous references to alchemy (symbols of which can be found throughout the book) and her mother’s childhood, this is a book for the present day. Reines references Facebook, Email, texting, internet porn, the movie Watchmen, and Google, among other signifiers. She even begins section 3, “When I Looked at Your Cock My Imagination Died,” with a screengrab of herself in the midst of a webchat. These poems are almost aggressively modern, to a varied degree of success. The references to websites or communication technologies that are used everyday feel like seamless and natural extensions of the narrative when they occur, and if “facebook” or “email” are words that we aren’t used to seeing in poems, they are so ubiquitous in daily life that they will soon lose their novelty in poetry. These references feel like vital details of the modern experience.

Formally, Mercury seems to embody the spirit of hybridity. The poems in this book are often arranged around sentences or couplets, but there is also formal experimentation. For example, Reines will often allow small fragments of poems to sit at the top of a page alone, surrounded by white space. The poems seem to spread out and stretch as the book progresses. Mercury is largely lyric, though there are narrative threads that can be found throughout, and some of the poems are decidedly narrative. “The Black Earth,” for example, describes a phone call between the speaker and her brother, who is dealing with an infestation of bedbugs. By shifting between narrative and lyric, Reines creates a dreamscape for the reader to explore – strange, but also uncannily familiar.  She knows that it is not the things that are strange that make nightmares disturbing, but the things that are recognizable.

The poems are certainly capable of great beauty, but the language also regularly tips into crudity. While this lends realism and honesty to the work, it can also force the poems right up to (and even over) the line of pornography. This is clearly intentional on Reines’ part, particularly in section three “When I Looked at Your Cock My Imagination Died.” This section begins with a letter, or an email, spelling errors and all, addressed to the poet, giving instructions for a planned pornographic encounter, involving the poet, two men, and a number of degrading sexual acts. The section continues with graphic and often surreal descriptions of various sex acts, broken up by short moments of (literal) reflection; “I want the gold / Shimmer shimmer shimmer shimmer shimmer.” This section is problematic, because while Reines seems to approach making a statement about the pornification of sex, she never fully develops the idea. It is hard to say whether these brazenly rough poems are meant to show empowerment, to satirize, or to condemn the way sexuality has evolved. These moments in the book are difficult to process, and while they are certainly effective, they approach the line of eliciting a shock and nothing else. And unfortunately, the more the poem approaches that line, the more the shock disappears and it becomes, quite simply, boring.

Despite the rawness of Mercury, the real emotional heart of the book doesn’t arrive until the fifth and final section, “0,” which is a complicated mediation about mothers and daughters. The poem seems to be simultaneously about the speaker’s unborn (and likely not even yet conceived) baby, and her mother, and is interspersed with pictures of a baby girl. Reines captures the essence of maternal ambivalence, describing the mother “lying / At the bottom of a swimming pool” while her baby floats above her, “tethered,” still in encased in “her thin sac of life.” Later, she addresses the child, expressing her conflicted feelings about giving a life: “I don’t love you and I don’t know why you’re here. / I would like to love you and I would try like every / Organ in me moving for your sake.” The speaker then describes finding pictures of her mother as a small child, and seeing her mother as her own baby, to be loved and protected. Reines delves into family history, not in extensive detail (though she hints that her grandparents were holocaust survivors), but in terms of wounds which are passed from generation to generation. She sees her mother’s brokenness reflected in her own, and knows she will see the same in her own daughter. This section of the book is vulnerable in a way that graphic sexual descriptions can’t be, because there is no shock value to it. Instead, Reines taps into some of the deepest, most un-sexy anxieties of being a woman.

Mercury is not a perfect book. There are stretches where the reader feels too lost in the poet’s head, or stranded in a bad movie comprised of difficult to watch sex scenes.  This doesn’t mean, however, that Mercury is not an accomplishment and one worth reading. Reines ambitiously tackles the female psyche, and she attempts to do justice to all the contradictions and challenges that exist in being a woman of the 21st century. With its mirror of a cover, Mercury asks the reader to participate, to see herself (or himself) in these lines, to unpack her baggage in the white space surrounding Reines’ own.

Katrina Greco is from Pittsburgh, PA. She is currently studying poetry in the MFA program at St. Mary’s College of California. Her writing has been published in Caught in the Carousel. She currently resides in the East Bay.


Richard O. Moore | Writing the Silences

University of California Press (2010)
Edited by Brenda Hillman & Paul Ebenkamp

By B. Ellis Williams

writingthesilencesRichard O. Moore—age 90 upon the release of this roughly 100 page collection, Writing the Silences—is the last living member of the pre-Beat, San Francisco Renaissance literary movement of the 1940’s and 1950‘s. Because Moore never sought to publish many of his poems until the present collection, his name is not as commonly recognizable in the literary world as some of his fellow San Francisco Renaissance writers, such as Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, or Jack Spicer. This collection, however, should help to change that and to grant his poems the recognition they deserve, to give them their rightful place in that California lineage.

The present collection features poems by Moore that cover a vast expanse of time, from 1946 through 2008. These poems address—and often quite actively wrestle with—the difficult themes of meaning; memory and its inevitable loss; madness; death; displacement; war; Western history and the potential errors of philosophy; and the problems of language. In “Columbia 1960,” Moore writes, “…what can be said that will not lead us into the same alienation that our previous language—the whole store of images that we call civilization—has produced for us.” And in “Ten Philosophical Asides”:

You must bear in mind that the language game
is so to say something unpredictable. I mean: it
is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable
(nor unreasonable).

The book’s title—taken from a poetic series by the same name, part of which is included in this collection—calls for an attention to what lies in-between and underneath the currents of our language, both in poetry and in everyday speech. This attention has certainly been maintained by Moore throughout the many years that the poems in this book represent. This attention is one to assumption, to the innate dissonance that inevitably creeps up between meaning and usage, between intent and actuality. Words are acknowledged in these poems as unstable, imprecise and even, in a certain manner, dangerous;  Moore writes in “The Winter Garden,” “words on a page / all desolation’s patronage”; in “Analects,” “a fantasy that language follows the world.”

But throughout these poems stalks the subtle presence of an even more fundamental and imponderable crisis than the unreliability and dangers of language: that of the existential disparity between the human assignment of meaning and order, and the world’s apparent lack of the same.

These are without question philosophical poems—poems of deep, interior exploration, of probing into the human-made and human-filtered world—but they are also poems of the ordinary, which refreshingly avoid the pitfalls of didacticism and obscurantism.

The white space that accompanies many of these poems on the page is deliberately used and evocative. This is perhaps most apparent in the title series, “Writing the Silences”:

Permission to be                what no longer
I am                                      will never be

waterfall                               at speed
unpointable                         ideal mere

those are real                       gunshots not
a machine to scare              birds from a field

As poet Brenda Hillman notes about these poems in her Foreword, “the poet implores the white spaces to speak to one another—the two columns to ‘cross over’ the large gap.” This use of negative space occurs throughout the collection, and though not always as overt or self-aware as in these title pieces, it is in each instance skillful.

This relatively slim collection of poems at times leaves the reader wishing for a more comprehensive selection (for instance, with regard to the several early series that are only presented in partial, excerpted form), but that is its only detectible fault. It is otherwise a superb and enlivening collection of poetic offerings that reveals a hitherto largely unexposed life of deep philosophical and poetic inquiry, of precise and innovative expression.

Moore was an avid reader of Ludwig Wittgenstein (whom he references directly in “Ten Philosophical Asides”), and one feels that Wittgenstein’s characteristic rejection of the concept of a complete or cohesive unifying system, his theory of ‘language games’ and his notion of the disjunction of properties, are all at home in these poems, with their tireless doubting and their ability to remain successfully in a space of negative capability. “My metaphysical coyotes have pissed off and gone,” Moore proclaims wryly in …a divertimento….

The rich imagery, the inventive, self-challenging language, and the often unanswerable questions that arise from the text of these poems are haunting and exacting. They serve to illumine honestly a world of human experience that is difficult, fearful and confounding, but also wondrous; that is “complete illusion, of partial beauty,” and always ultimately rendered, analyzed by, and therefore inextricably bound to, the “heavy, lovely, image-riddled mind.”

B. Ellis Williams is a poet and native of the West Coast, currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at Saint Mary’s College of California. He resides in Oakland.


Philip Metres | Abu Ghraib Arias

Flying Guillotine Press (2011)

By William Neumire

abu-ghraib-arias-cover-front-2012Ever since Rauschenberg erased a De Kooning, erasure art and writing has been trending in the United States. In erasure poetry the “author” takes an extant text or texts and erases words until the words of his or her choosing are the only ones left on the page. Metres’ erasure poems, like most, are centered around absence, missingness, lacunae. They draw on a number of sources, including a Standard Operating Procedure manual for Camp Echo at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, the testimony of Abu Ghraib torture victims, the words of U.S. soldiers, official reports on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, interviews with whistle-blowers, the Bible, and the Code of Hammurabi.

Now, William Stafford used to say that all poetry is political, but overt political poetry, such as Metres’, is trickier to pull off than the decadent lyrical free verse of twenty-first century American poetry with its ironic tone and flat, unaffected style. Enter Philip Metres who has said that “war is something that permeates society and is authorized by every single person in a society, or in a democratic society, should be authorized by some kind of mass agreement (…) I think some American writers get narcissistically focused on themselves and forget that we’re responsible to the culture and to the world and not to make writing a practice of self-scrutiny or self-adoration or self-promotion, but somehow to speak to the world in a larger sense.” This debate has been around for longer than Metres or Stafford or anyone reading this, and the question is does poetry (poets) have a social responsibility? Metres shouts out a resounding yes with this chapbook made of combat paper that feels, at times, as though it might fall apart in your hands as you read. The afterword states that “the long poem Abu Ghraib Arias and the voices they bring on stage/page, began out of a vertiginous sense of being named but silenced as an Arab American, and out of the parallel sense of seeing Arabs named and silenced, since 9/11.” It doesn’t get much more overtly political than that. So, how does Abu Ghraib Arias accomplish speaking to the world?

The book opens with “The Blues of Lane McCotter,” a poem that blacks out several words as an imitation of confidential sections of a report, but it also serves the laborious double duty of capturing in word and image the silenced Iraqis of its subject matter. It begins:

four Iraquis at the gate
All of them missing
their hands or their
############ story”

The linebreak after “missing” creates that tense and densely meaningful sense of the Iraqis as missing, as missing their hands, their presence, their identify, their voices. As for the title, an aria is a melody sung by a single voice, so what the reader gets here is the erased and ghostly voice of the prisoners, the voice of the wikileaks reports, the voice of the interviews, the voice of the whistle-blowers, the voice of history.

These poems are peopled with the characters involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal, including the worst offender, Charles Grainer, who later in the book is called simply G. This G becomes dark and disturbing as it is mixed with references from the Koran and the Bible, making his figure a sort of demon god at times. This alternates with the voices of prisoners, such as the one in “Public Address / Ghost Soldiers” that warns, “don’t ask you don’t ask you don’t you / Just say yes sir when they say”. This chapbook, therefore, becomes all about what’s not written, the words that are blacked out, the empty parentheses, the long fields of space between lines. It becomes not just text but image, not just words but art. As a matter of fact, one of the “(echo/ex/)” poems consists of only the pronouns I, he, me, and once the letter G (Graner), and this effect culminates in the last poem that is only a page of punctuation marks.

This is not Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet, but it would make one hell of a companion study. Here are arias that have not gotten their due, that have been lacunae and ghosts, but with Metres’ collection come justifiably into the world. So Metres’ book is responsible, but so is the kid who always does his homework, never disobeys his parents, and gasps at curse words. Anyone can be boringly responsible, but do these arias sing or fall flat? I’ll admit that at times these poems can feel like reportage prose, and I’m always a little skeptical of erasure poetry that so blatantly steals its words (as opposed to the more subtle thievery of lyrical poetry), but this collection is finely stitched with moments of fearful music, moments that create pathos and an aching pleasure.

Bill Neumire’s poems have appeared in American Poetry Journal, Los Angeles Review, Hollins Critic, and the Laurel Review. He has written freelance reviews of contemporary poetry for the Cortland Review, Rattle, Hiram Poetry Review, and Vallum (Canada). He lives a suspiciously quiet life in Syracuse, New York with his wife, his daughter, and his pitbull.