In a new spring lineup, poets use Google, ponder the end of the world.
Thu Mar 27 2008
April has come again, and with it the downpour of verse that is National Poetry Month. It’s a good year for disturbed and disturbing poetry—the Iraq War and other contemporary conundrums have inspired strong books by both famous poets and newer talents.
There is something hauntingly familiar about the world of James Tate’s new collection, The Ghost Soldiers (Ecco, $22.95), with its paranoia, apathy, rumors of a war on our own soil and real uncertainty. Tate follows the misadventures of confused, well-meaning American men caught in the wake of ridiculous circumstances and too befuddled to draw any conclusions. As they try to figure out what it all means—whether God exists, if they’re being spied on—a morality tale unfolds, only there’s usually no moral. In “The War Next Door,” a man sees “victims of the last war bandaged and / limping.” He thought the war was over, but apparently not. People ask him why he didn’t fight, and he replies, “I didn’t know who the enemy was, honest, I didn’t.”
Equally cynical but more absurd are Flarf poets, a group that plugs unlikely search terms into Google and uses the results to construct poems that are usually gross, laugh-out-loud funny and deeply critical of a culture that populates its Internet with dreck. Early in Breathalyzer (Edge, $15), the new book by Flarfist K. Silem Mohammad, we meet vomiting swans, and the volume ends with a guy who “threw up on the sun.” In between, Mohammad hilariously mixes everything from “Scooby Doo…nude 24/7” to Susan Sontag and Robert Duncan. But this isn’t just the poetry version of Jackass. Mohammad derives power from his unwavering will to push through our culture’s surface garbage, if only to reveal sadder garbage underneath. Of the endless online news cycles, he notes: “The battles that lie before us last maybe a minute.”
The 26-year-old Belarus native Valzhyna Mort recently burst onto the American scene with her U.S. debut, Factory of Tears (Copper Canyon, $15), translated by Pulitzer winner Franz Wright and his wife, Elizabeth. The book’s quick humor and jump cuts are common enough in contemporary poetry, but Mort’s capacious empathy and brittle sense of nationality are far rarer. “Belarusian I” speaks from and for an embattled nation struggling to “crawl from under the ruins after a bombing.” At the book’s center is “White Trash,” a sexy, cynical prose mediation on two equally volatile topics: human bodies and the countries they live in. Mort has a lot to say about our bombed-out, televised age, a time for complex ambivalence: The worker-speaker in the title poem is paid in “the product I manufacture,” and yet can still profess, “I’m happy with what I have.”
Aleksandr Skidan is a leading Russian avant-garde poet, and a translator into Russian of American writers such as Charles Olson and Paul Auster, and their fragmentary aesthetics left their mark on Skidan. Red Shifting (Ugly Duckling Presse, $15), translated from the Russian by Genya Turovskaya, is Skidan’s first book in English. These are shifty and ever-shifting poems and sequences; leaving a reader hard-pressed to find a clear narrative, but the many local pleasures include a searing, earnest voices fighting through mismatched grammar and piled words. “I fetishize the voice,” says Skidan. These perverse poems are more obsessed with the need to speak than with what’s finally said, and capture the language of a long, painful history at “play above the ancestral skirmish.”
Mark Doty still finds wonder in a world of confusion and hardships. Beauty is the object of worship in Fire to Fire (Harper, $22.95), a much-needed book of new and selected older poems by Doty. These pieces profess that even amid life’s many difficulties, there are reasons, if one pays attention, to say, “I seem never to have heard” or seen, touched, smelled, tasted “anything so radiant.” Doty has been justly praised for his earlier books about grief, AIDS, art and love, which are generously represented here. The hefty group of new poems speaks from a passionate middle age in downtown Manhattan. They locate the sublime while waiting in a Laundromat, or passing by the odd man on the corner of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue who sells a toy he calls the magic mouse—or, in Doty’s rendering, “MAHJIK MAOWWZ” (if you’ve been by there, you’ll know what he means). Doty takes us with him on his journeys from the everyday to the ecstatic, a “seemingly endless chain of glorious conclusions.”
For Jorie Graham, happiness is hard to even fathom, because she’s so focused on the misdeeds that led us into a war on a planet we’re in the process of destroying. Sea Change (Ecco, $23.95) is among Graham’s most powerful books. In these poems, thoughts interrupt each other as the author struggles to see through history and a grim-looking future to “how peace began again.” Ecstasies—“you know / you have no destiny; no, you have a wild unstoppable / rumor for a soul…”—come at the very great cost of much darker knowledge. Graham speaks for us in a bleak time, fearing the end may be in sight if we don’t act: “there are sounds the planet will always make, even / if there is no one to hear them.”