Poems by Nancy C. Harris. New Orleans: Portals Press, 1999.
Sea-Level Zero. Poems by Daniela Crasnaru. Translated by Adam
J. Sorkin with the poet. Rochester,
NY: Boa Editions, 1999.
The Numbers. Poems by Gordon Massman. Columbus: Pavement Saw
Completing the Circle. Poems by Christian Knoeller. Champaign,
Ill.: Buttonwood Press, 2000.
In the damp and leafy courtyard of the Maple Leaf bar in New Orleans
lies a soupçon of the ashes of one Everette Maddox, legendary
street poet and until his death several years ago host of the Maple
Leaf's perpetual Sunday afternoon poetry readings, whose epitaph
on the brass plaque there in the foliage reads: "He was a mess."
In the years since Maddox's death,
Nancy C. Harris has hosted the Sunday readings, but the rest of
her week is devoted to writing because "understanding the
mirror is a full-time job." Bound in silver reflective
covers, Mirror Wars -- her second book, ten years after The
Ape Woman Story (1989) -- invites the reader to enter the "pink
shotgun" where she lives and gazes into the mirrors there,
playing with the distortions of reality and identity: "look
into this poem & you will see / your own face if you want it
to be there." Is this an invitation to narcissism or to identifying
ourselves with others?
Such challenges, like the complaints
of the blues, can sound cheeky if they're unearned. But if the poet
has paid her dues, the challenge sticks. Harris pays hers in these
honest poems which are, as she says, "stones in my backpack
of maya." They are the weighty "aggregations of my objective
life," but also a "demonic grimoire" for the "mirror
magic to send evil spirits / right back where they came from --
across the street. // the result: Mirror Wars." The image is
eerie, and echoes still another figure who haunts New Orleans, the
one-eyed Lafcadio Hearn, who wrote in "City of Dreams"
(New Orleans Item, 9 March 1879) about the inhabitants' mania
for talking "either to themselves or to viewless beings or
to the sleepy shadows that fling jagged bits of darkness across
the streets on sunny days." Nancy Harris shares Hearn's sensitivity
to the ghostly substratum of her city.
In "The Death of My Childhood"
Harris tells how she was born a twin and so comes by her obsession
with reflected images honestly. She addresses her twin as "brother
hermaphrodite" and asks the uncomfortable question: "in
the womb when we met wet / with beginning life / was I wife to your
movement?" She considers "the violence done to each other"
in and out of the womb, how it was later "turned against ourselves,"
how "even now I reflect the brother" and "float symmetrically
against balanced sex / & struggle with division." She concludes
this section of the poem with difficult questions about difficult
emotions: "I have dreamed you were my lover. / do you dream
of me? / I fold the incest myth into an airplane / & sail it
to you." In these playful, dead-serious explorations of the
"mysterium coniunctionis" (hermphroditism, sexual awakening,
being a twin), the poet becomes in our stead her "own pricked
specimen." It's how she pays her dues.
As with all people whose experience
is distinctly different than our own, we would do well to listen
to what Nancy Harris has found out and recorded in this (literally)
reflective book, which records what she calls her grimoires.
That lovely word, lovingly chosen -- with its multiple layers of
grim memoir, armoire mirror, black book of spells
and incantations, obscure writings or illegible scrawl
-- sums up for me this collection of gleaming-tarnished reflections.
Contemporary Romanian poet Daniela
Crasnaru's Sea-Level Zero is similarly a volume of hard-won
poems, and this translation of her poetry provides us with an accessible
rendition of her style. These versions are wordier than previous
translations by Andrea Deletant and Brenda Walker in Silent Voices:
Romanian Women Poets (London: Forest Books, 1986) -- as they
should be, because the poems are talky, with a relaxed line that
captures their conversational nature: intensely introspective without
being egotistical, like a serious conversation between intelligent
friends attempting to cross barriers of language and culture.
The cultural barrier proves the harder
to transcend, especially in the poems of Part IV, "Seven Illusory
Contours of America." In the poem "Western People, Eastern
Creatures," for example, the poet observes that "Love,
death and life may be the same" for different cultures, "But
the way you see them is different." She cites how Americans
are "wary of bacteria, microbes, unknown new viruses"
it's fashionable to be a nonsmoker, a vegetarian,
a fragile being enjoying a favorite weakness,
it tenderly, loving it in the end
-- and speculates that perhaps everyone wants "to be immortal"
in America because "here life is worth living." She, though,
comes from a culture with "other worries. Untranslatable. /
A vast interior dread." Before she writes a postcard home,
she pauses before licking the stamp, thinking, like an American,
that "there could be a lot of bacteria." This is a new
feeling for her, so she marvels at its novelty but wonders about
its sanity, and, still in true Romanian fashion, its politics: "a
shortcut to madness / or a small step toward democracy?"
In Part V, "The Writing Lesson,"
the poems meditate on the discomfort with the process of writing,
especially with writing away from home (in Italy and America), and
participating in creative writing programs (a truly foreign concept
to Romanian writers). The title poem of this section and the final
poem of the volume, for example, begins: "I'll have to repeat
the course." And ends: "You fail the exam and you'll have
to repeat / the professor says as he pushes me into the emptiness."
This is the way writers have always written, both in and out of
Romania, both before and after creative writing programs, by being
pushed into the emptiness of the untranslatable interior dread.
It's what they come back with that's important.
Romanians are fond of saying that
Romania and America are not separate countries but different planets,
a sentiment reflected in "New York, NY." When the poet
is asked "Where are you from?" she responds defensively
in the voice of marginalized writers from "minor" linguistic
communities everywhere: "I am from the third world, from the
fourth, / from the last possible one. / I am from nowhere. I am
From Crasnaru's modest "zero,"
we dive into Gordon Massman's The Numbers. At the front and
back of The Numbers, you find four pages of block numbers,
a bookending conceit that is lost on me whether it's intended as
symbolic or decor. I suppose it's supposed to work like the blank
and black pages of Tristram Shandy. It doesn't. Massman's
poems do, however, weigh the page like blocks.
A therapist I know practices play
therapy with adults. It is particularly helpful with adults who
have a hard time of it at their work, who don't really want to be
doing what they're doing, like lawyers and brokers and such. (Massman
is a "broker associate with Coldwell Banker.") The therapist
gets down on her hands and knees and plays Lego with them, or they
fingerpaint. She refuses to do this kind of therapy, though, with
men because she's afraid that men will regress too far back. This
is exactly what happens in Mr. Massman's "137," in which
he fantasizes letting children stream into the offices of the company
where he works. This fantasy, of course, has nothing to do with
the orphans and waifs of the world -- behind the thin disguise,
all these kids are actually Massman, here allowed to "poop
the Presidential chair" and to "miss the urinals by a
country mile." Just the sort of regression my therapist friend
was afraid of.
Mr. Massman, like so many men who
feel constrained by corporate America (and who feel a "sticky
and wild" elemental being within, if only someone would let
it out to play), romanticizes the little brats of his psyche, thinking
that their bawling is a "blast of honesty" instead of
the not-yet-civilized selfishness that it is. The adult heart sinks
with liberal guilt: "We have failed / with our bright red pop
cans, our cell phones, / our steroidial meat." What kind of
political platform is being espoused in this whole-foodish crypto-vegetarian
But this poem reveals what is at the
root of Massman's scatographic style: he would like to write (fingerpaint)
his poems in his own shit; wield his penis like a fountain pen and
hose his name in streams of urine. (The penile image is omnipresent:
"his vibrating bridge, / which he lowers into her, like a wish";
"I slide my penis into you and the whole world / dims".)
But there seems to be an equal distaste for the woman's organs:
"the faithless woman who combines / the semen of two men in
her sour laboratory / of flesh.") He seems to think that all
this passionate penis-love and cunt-hate is grandly Whitmanesque
-- "Of those he sang, / and of life's spectacular uncertainties"
("135"); "I admit that I cannot / rescue them, not with
my multiplicity / of song" ("111"). I've got news for
him. It is not Whitmanesque, it's just regressive. Compare the rich
concrete textured infinity of "leaves of grass" with the
dry repetitive abstraction of "numbers."
In the end one wonders: why The
Numbers? The editors speak of: "Gordon Massman's life-long
project, now 1193 poems deep, each merely numbered in the order
it was written, and which when completed will form a psychographic
autobiography." Well, I suppose such egotistical navel-gazing
might be allowed in a Romantic like Lord Byron, who earned his right
to write such pscyhographic autobiographies like Childe Harold's
Pilgrimage and Don Juan by living an interesting life.
Gordon Massman is no George Gordon, however. As the bio-blurb tells
us: "After twenty-five years of acquiring manuscripts for scholarly
publishers, he is now a broker associate for Coldwell-Banker."
Is this supposed to be funny -- like Monty Python's skit about the
accountant who wants to become a lion tamer? (See "85,"
a confession about zoophilic voyeurism.)
We learn much about Mr. Massman's
life. He watches ice hockey on TV. He reads the newspaper. He also
wants to cook his father and eat him. In the final poem of the volume,
"1113" -- not all 1193, thank god, are included -- Massman
indulges in a patricidal cannibalistic conceit, a playful little
ditty that recalls Zeus's castration (not cannibalization) of Chronos:
"I will have / achieved my goal, liberated to song, no longer
/ man but soul." By eating human flesh, in short, he aspires
to Godhead. (He must have forgotten his vegetarian sympathies temporarily,
which seemed suspiciously ad hoc anyway.) "You cannot kill
God nor / an empty robe."
The answer to "why The Numbers?"
seems to be that Mr. Massman was too lazy to shape his verse-journal
into anything other than these shapeless blocks of prosaic Playdough.
They stack up after a while. I like how the editors say his project
is now "1193 poems deep," which must describe how they
pile up beneath him like a coprolithic mountain beneath an outhouse.
In the end, though, only one number seems to count, and that's Number
One. That old inexorable "I" (sometimes disguised in the
earlier poems with a grandiloquent but transparent autobiographical
"he" -- shades of Byron again). Poem after poem is tainted
by the same egotism: "111" begins (its three ones to signify
me, myself and?) "I roll off her, satisfied";
"523" has him fucking the Virgin Mary; "370" has him giving
his own hand a tongue-job until he sees (or actually becomes) God,
"the entering tongue self-love flooding"; and "718"
begins "I say to myself I am beautiful." Other clues to
an infantile and narcissistic regression proliferate: "He wanted
to suck / his toes to feel the pillow tongue" ("135").
One wonders: what's stopping him? Go for it. Just do it. Put down
your Byron and pick up your Blake on the dangers of nursing unacted
Certain authors steal all a critic's
fire by incorporating a critique of their work into the work itself.
Nothing is more straightforward and self-revealing, though, than
Massman's unironically titled "911," which says: "I
gazed into the toilet like Narcissus." (What number has he
deposited in the toilet today?) If only Mr. Massman, self-proclaimed
male bulimic, could see what we see in that toilet, we might doubt
whether he indeed has his own number, even though in "619"
he sees himself quite clearly: "With eyes closed I pound the
keys of my machine in infantile egotism, feeble of language, genius-weak."
No argument here.
Christian Knoeller's Completing
the Circle has a similar tendency to arbitrary form, with a
particular affection for tercets. This winner of Buttonwood Press's
Millennium Prize ends with "wishing your life / had purpose
as clear as / the world's utter beauty." This is a nice sentiment,
I suppose, even if one allows the final, unqualified proposition
about the world's aesthetic qualities, but one wishes these poems
showed more purpose and clarity and uttered less "beauty."
Clarity suggests seeing things as
they are, and seeing things as they are surely entails a nod to
the viciousness or ugliness that exists outside of the prettified
world of "poetry" as Knoeller envisions it: idyllic Nature
seen in soft focus, a little blurry around the edges, beautiful,
if you like that sort of thing. The poem "Seals" describes
that species as having "eyes dark / as ocean deep as / silence."
These seals are not just cute, they are deeply philosophical, "piecing
together / the puzzle that being human poses to / their fatted aqueous
mind," as they observe the world like lovers regarding each
other with "patience / and grace." Similar pathetic fallacies
litter Knoeller's Eden.
Worse, the prosody of these poems
clunk and the lineation is without purpose. How easy it is
to misread a couplet like this one:
you wish a pond or dream one
sometimes come as if.
Or in another poem:
still surface of a pond beavers
wrought in a single season.
In both couplets, one wonders: Is "beavers" a verb or
Elsewhere, Knoeller's ear seems out
of tune in lines awkwardly enjambed only to be completed with the
wooden fall of a single peg-leg iambic or trochaic foot in the next
river not yet frozen
or already begun
Or: "fly rod missing the remainder of / the pole."
Or, worse: "Even stones that lead to / the barn [...]
have begun to weather / this way." Or, somewhat revealingly:
"I had not yet learned / to speak [...] words I have
still / not learned." There is a fake suspense in these
/ poems, in these / enjambments, a superficial / drama, which always
ends / in anticlimax.