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Reading in the Raw
by Richard Collins

Mirror Wars. 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 Press, 2000.
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" --

          Here it's fashionable to be a nonsmoker, a vegetarian,
          an allergic, a fragile being enjoying a favorite weakness,
          growing 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 not."
     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 claptrap?
     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 desires.
     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:

          where you wish a pond or dream one
          beavers sometimes come as if.

Or in another poem:

          the still surface of a pond beavers
          had wrought in a single season.

In both couplets, one wonders: Is "beavers" a verb or a noun?
     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 verse:

          of the river not yet frozen
          over, or already begun
          to melt.

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.


John Fante: A Literary Portrait. Guernica Editions, 2000.
Fifty Novels and Other Utopias, by Ioan Flora. Editura Eminescu, 1996.
Foolscape. Perivale Press, 1983.


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